Saturday, June 25, 2011

On the Subject of Compassion

This past Thursday, I heard a lecture given by writer and religious historian Karen Armstrong. It was the first in a series of lectures in honor of Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was also present at the event. I am teaching my religion class right now, and I was hoping that I'd learn something from Karen that I could bring back to my students, especially when we got to the discussion of interfaith dialogue.

I realize that Karen was speaking for a more general audience, but I felt the lecture was a bit too generic. A lot of it was the same discussion of learning mutual respect and having compassion. She mentioned that as part of a TED prize she had won, she was going from city to city and country to country, trying to get them to buy in to a contract of compassion. She said she tended to be cynical about such things, but was really surprised and hopeful at the response.

I say good for Karen for initiating positive steps towards mutual respect among humans. However, I am not sure I agree with her vision of compassion. Karen has a new book out, a sort of 12-step program to becoming compassionate. She went over 3 of the steps in the lecture. She started off rightly enough in my opinion, by stating that compassion is not equal to pity. There is a tendency to believe that these terms are synonymous, and they are not. Compassion accepts and respects other humans as they are; pity "feels sorry for them" because they are not as wonderful as you are. Compassion does not judge.

It was her description of judgment that struck a discordant note with me. She suggests that we make statements and judgments about others in order to feel superior ourselves. In some cases, that might be true. Insecure people tend to take the world personally, and the actions of others are clearly an offense in their mind because of the other person's obvious character flaw. But Karen misses the point of the everyday judgments that people make. When people act in ways that are disturbing or inconsiderate, we often seek to find a reason for it. We don't actually want to believe the other person is just a jerk. We look at other patterns in their behavior relative to others and say, "Suzie forgets to call because she obviously can't control all the stuff she has going on in her life" (for example). If we feel positively towards people, we tend to make excuses for them. If we feel negatively towards them, we may be less forgiving. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. In the end, all of us do things that are annoying to others. I agree with her that you should detach from a tendency to demonize others because of that.

In addition, her ideas about compassion don't address personal boundaries. Perhaps she addresses this in her book, but she didn't in the lecture. Standing at the pulpit chastising people for "turning a blind eye to those who are really crying out" just perpetuates an already vicious circle. For instance--Person A may cry to me about their personal problems. Now, as humans, our first instinct would be to want to help. Person A may be describing real problems, but Person A may also be what you could call a "perpetual victim". They constantly get themselves into bad situations and use high drama to manipulate others into cleaning up for them. Now, maybe you've helped Person A, and you've gotten screwed--you gave an inch, they took a mile. The bottom line is that you don't help Person A by giving them money or other resources. You help Person A by saying, "oh well, best of luck" and letting them figure it out on their own. Person A may possibly need therapy, but that really should not be your concern.

The vicious circle comes in, because when we refuse to help, we feel guilty. To others, we may look cold and heartless. This doesn't only happen with people with fiscal or emotional problems--it may also be someone trying to wedge their way into your private life, when you're really not comfortable having them there. If you tell them to get lost, you look like a mean and heartless person. But you have a right to set boundaries--and you have a right to expect others to respect them. AND--you have a right to expect that others will be accountable for themselves. If someone is disabled, or otherwise unable to do some particular thing, that is a different story. But the examples I can think of involve perfectly healthy and capable individuals.

Perhaps it was because Karen was giving a general lecture to the group that she didn't get into these nuances. But I don't like the generalization that compassion always involves breaking down personal barriers. You may want to be friendly to everyone in a crime-ridden neighborhood, but it doesn't hurt to have your martial arts skills sharpened just in case. There is a very human need for self-preservation.

An article appeared shortly before Karen's lecture on "unconditional love without caring". The phrasing is odd, but the gist of the article is that one should not be attached to outcomes. We let other people become what they need to be, even if that means letting them drop into utter failure. Trying to control outcomes is bad enough in our own lives--it's certainly not appreciated by others if we do it to them, no matter how well intentioned. Sometimes compassion involves reminding someone that they have enough brains to figure something out on their own.

On the whole, I think Karen's message is important, and compassion is something too often missing these days, especially in extreme versions of religion. But in order to be compassionate, we have to understand the limitations and boundaries of ourselves and others. Otherwise, the move towards compassion is an empty one--it is what we're "supposed" to do, but it ends up being done with resentment. The only way to really care is to not care so much. If you are a religious person, you might better understand this as "letting God do the caring about outcomes".

Monday, June 20, 2011

Garden Ganeshas

I was out walking with a friend after breakfast on Sunday. As we walked along a bicycle path, she suddenly pointed to my right. "There's a Ganesha over there!" We walked over to take a look. A path had been created through a small clearing in the trees, and there were actually 2 Ganeshas, a Hanuman, and a couple of broken Devis. Beyond this was a parking lot, and a garden center, which had a whole display of statues--Ganeshas, Devis, Buddhas, and others.

We walked back to the path, and my friend dusted off the two Ganeshas. "This is all very bad luck. They should not put these outside." She went on to tell me about a temple created by a Western couple, that everyone said was amazing. She had been to a program at this temple, which had a Ganesha "installed" by the man's guru, who she said was just an Indian priest. (In case you don't know--it is one thing to have a statue of a deity, it is another thing to "install" it. Installation means "establishing life", and making it a real object for temple worship). She talked about a Swami that she had discussed this with--he said that the temple was tended to, but anyone who visited could do the rituals. He shrugged and said, "well, it's better for them to do that than to hang out in bars." She then went on to discuss groups that allow anyone to chant archanas, which she said would have ill effects. (While I don't entirely agree, I have heard really awful recitations of archana that really destroy the devotional mood). Things have to be done "correctly". I thought this was odd, since she had just been discussing her annoyance with traditions about women and holy rituals and places.

Later, I thought more about what she said, and I realized that I totally disagree with her. I couldn't put my finger on what I found wrong with her argument at first, but then I realized that it was a very Western way of thinking. Deity should not be in Nature--Nature is inferior and impure, and only very special "pure" people are capable of doing the rituals. I understand that this is her tradition--and perhaps taught as regular Hindu doctrine--but it's crap, as far as I'm concerned. I am sure that rituals performed in this atmosphere of reverence and "purity" are very effective. I also understand that those who have given up worldly life often feel pained or weighed down by "worldly" modes of worship. I think of Sri Ramakrishna and his wife, Sarada Devi, who cried out in pain if a devotee touched their feet. They were not living a "human" life, and were acutely aware of the weight of worldly living.

However--to say that a deity image should not be in nature is to relegate nature to an inferior status, and make the god into something "out there", something of which we are unworthy. That is completely contrary to Eastern thought. Everyone is treated with respect because everyone--and everything--is a manifestation of the Divine. This is monism, not monotheism. Not everyone does treat others with respect, but that is because of ignorance--they have forgotten their divine status, and that of others.

With regard to chanting--yes, I realize that the proper intonation of the words creates a certain vibration designed to raise awareness. However--I think of a footnote I read in the "Secret of the Golden Flower". A man overheard a monk chanting his mantra, and decided to chant it as well. However, he was saying it incorrectly, and ended up chanting "I am the latrine". However, the footnote states, "he chanted 'I am the latrine' over and over until he achieved enlightenment." Just because it is not the traditional way doesn't mean it can't work or doesn't work. Similarly, Amma has said that a mother does not reject a child's offering of a drawing because it's not a technical artistic masterpiece.

Ritual is psychological, and to believe that it "must" be done a certain way is to be attached to the ritual rather than its effect. It probably has the maximum psychological effect if one does it exactly as tradition records it, but it isn't necessary. Notions of purity and sanctity, while they have value, can also end up being alienating. The goal is to unite, not to separate. If someone is shooed away from practice because it's not "traditional" enough and therefore "bad luck", you will have created the "bad luck" by creating a separation from the "divine".

We also tend to forget that rituals are man-made, no matter how well-crafted or inspired. While they point towards something beyond the material, they are still nothing more than the material. All religions agree that on some fundamental level there is only Void--there is a No-Thingness, a state that cannot be described or comprehended through images. Out of that Void worlds are created, but they are illusory because they are temporal. The rituals, writings, experiences, and beliefs that anyone may have and subscribe to are going to be as individual as their own creation of the world via their perceptions. At a time when there was one community shaman, and the community acted as a unit, it may have been appropriate to say that there was only one way to do things. In the modern world--which focuses on the individual development towards unity rather than everyone acting as a unit--there are as many ways to do things as there are people. And if "God" isn't everywhere--especially if you are a Hindu or Buddhist--then "God" is nowhere at all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

For Example, Miscellaneous

(Post title stolen from a Dilbert cartoon).

A quick announcement--another of my archetype stories, "Umbra", will be appearing in Death Head Grin magazine, September issue. Details to follow when I have them.

Last night was once again a night full of strange dreams. Unwanted weddings (not mine), perverted priests, and strange dramas played out by people I was close to years ago. Also appearing in last night's dream was Amma, my guru. I have not dreamed of her in a long time--probably not in years. They say that a dream of Amma means she is thinking of you. After considering all the dream content, I think Amma is somehow aware of my pressure-cooker status. I have a lot to accomplish, I feel I don't have much time in which to accomplish it--and there are still many roadblocks. I'm not notorious for having a lot of patience with roadblocks--once I'm revved up and get going, I don't have any brakes--it's go, go, go at 100 miles per hour. Braking requires an emergency brake, and I don't like that. It makes me cranky, to say the least. And I think the guru has appeared to say, "Hey, chill out. It's all good, you'll get to where you're going."

Today is Father's Day, and my father's birthday was this past week as well. He is 80 years old this year, which seems really strange. He was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, which my grandmother also had. (Really hoping I inherited my Mom's genetics on this one). On Saturday he helped me fix the fence in my yard, and he was in pretty good shape. My mother usually comes along to "supervise", but she wasn't there today. I noted that he finished the job without supervision, and he grunted. "Your mother has all these projects for me at home. I told her she was a very ambitious person."

I had a lot more that I wanted to do this weekend, but I went shopping instead. Not the smartest thing, given that I'm not flush right now with cash, and I really want to save money. Of course, every bit of extra money I've made in the last 2 months has had to go elsewhere--to a sick cat, and now to a sick car. And there are some things I desperately need, so I might as well quit penny-pinching. That extra bit of money is not going to sort everything out.

I can't complain, though--Friday and Saturday were two days of amazing synchronicity. I'd recently written some articles that I asked a friend to review for clarity. I know he's busy, so I didn't want to rush him. On Friday I thought, hmm, it would be nice to revise those articles, but I have to wait. Then, I opened my e-mail, and there were the comments. Similarly--I was wondering what John Foxx was up to for the rest of the year, as I would like to make some travel and financial plans for the rest of the year. On Saturday, I had a call with someone out of the blue who answered those questions. And--even better--what I was told coincided perfectly with what I'd already decided on. (No, I can't say anything--what I've been told hasn't been officially announced or confirmed. Sorry about that. All I can say is what Steve Malins said already--some exciting announcements coming soon.)

I've received several communications in the last couple of weeks, and a few of them said, "Hope your well." I was puzzled, because I don't have a well. I have city water (city being a relative term out here). My neighbor has a well, but it's purely for decoration. I also don't know why anyone would "hope" my well--maybe they mean "wish", in which case, see the sentence before the last one. For anyone else, I recommend this blurb from the Oatmeal.

Speaking of recommendations, here is a short film take on H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" by Cthulhu Films. Thanks to Grim Reviews for posting:

OK, it's been a long weekend, and I'm going to bed. If you're lonely, here's a friend for you, courtesy of the Found Footage Festival.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I'm short on cash these days, but I still decided to hit one of my favorite restaurants for lunch after a long drive to New Jersey's illustrious capital, Trenton, to drop off some items at their huge Goodwill center. (OK, it's technically in Ewing, but that's really a Trenton neighborhood. This part sure looks like it, too).

I'm acquainted with a couple of the waiters and waitresses there. If you recall my blog posting from a couple of years ago, The Guide to Brigid for the Romantically Perplexed, I mentioned a waiter who referred to me as a "character". This is the same guy. Who is something of a character himself. On this particular day, he wasn't waiting on my table, but he dropped by with his iPhone. He showed me a picture he'd taken on the Main Street of a pile of garbage bags with a sign on top that said, "free cats". He prefaced showing me this photo by saying, "Here, you're semi-disturbed, you'll like this." My waitress then popped over and said, "yeah, he showed me that too. But I happen to love cats." "Yeah, me too," I said. "I have three of them. But it's still pretty funny."

I think my status there has moved from "a character" to "semi-disturbed" because of another visit, when I was reading D.P. Walker's "Spiritual and Demonic Magic" while having lunch. Which is an academic treatise that attempts to create a theoretical construct of magical philosophy as described in the writings of famous alchemists and occultists from the time of the Orphic hymns and Chaldean Oracle through the Reformation. In other words--not a book of magic, even though I've read lots of those too. Of course, explaining that when asked goes nowhere--it's like sitting there with Playboy and saying you're just looking at an interesting article. Even if it's true, no one believes it.

People have always treated an interest in the occult as a sign of deviance, something to be suspicious of. I recall all of those videos and TV programs that were on when I was in high school, that saw "Satan" everywhere, and urged parents to intervene with their children if they were even reading about the subject. I read Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's great history of Western Esotericism (The Western Esoteric Traditions), and one of the first things he mentions in the introduction is the fact that "occult" subjects are rarely treated in academia, except in sociological studies of deviance. (And, as a friend of mine noted--when discussing the practices of primitive cultures). Originally, "magic" had to do with shamanism, and the shaman is someone who stands between "this" world and the "other" world. They are both feared and reverenced because they have seen the Numinous and lived to tell about it. In our modern society, which dismisses the idea of the "other" world, such a person is "crazy" and "irrational". Modern "religious" people associate occultism with the "devil" and with "black magic", and that means everything and anything related to it--crystals, Tarot cards, etc. They all forget that much of our modern science, especially chemistry, medicine, and psychology, were developed by alchemists and other magicians.

I've been reading about the occult and about comparative religion since I was in the first grade. They may have been simple books in the school library, but I was always looking to get more at the public library. I could always be found in the 133.4 section (or, in some cases, 398.2. They're Dewey numbers. Look 'em up). As an adult, this has blossomed into an interest in depth psychology--the actual shamanic bridge between our material world and the "other". Magic ought to be explored, because its rich symbolism tells us much about ourselves.

My current read is a collection of Dirk Mosig's writings on H.P. Lovecraft. Mosig is a psychologist, and his psychological (and particularly Jungian) take on Lovecraft is interesting to me. He points out, as other critics do, that Lovecraft was a materialist, and would have scoffed at the occult in the same way he scoffed at religion--and at science, when it came down to it. Both religion and science act as though they can control the vast, indifferent forces of the Universe, which can't really be done. We are like ants marching in front of humans--we could be squashed or not, and there's no reason except that we've gotten in the way. In spite of August Derleth's Catholic pleading, the "Cthulhu Mythos" stories (which Mosig said should be called the Yog-Sothoth cycle instead) are not a battle between good "Elder Gods" and evil "Old Ones". The monsters confronted are nothing less than one's own archetypal Shadow, and the terrifying realization in Lovecraft's stories is that we are nothing but a speck in a vast cosmos, and our lives are meaningless. Lovecraft would have seen occultism as another way to "find" meaning where there isn't any. I tend to look at it differently--I don't think life has any meaning, but that makes it a game--it's happening just for fun. It's a puzzle that's been split into a thousand pieces, and you have to put it back together again. And--the puzzle is incredibly complex. Doing puzzles is merely entertaining and not meaningful. But that's really what we're doing. It's a long and colorful journey, sometimes wonderful, sometimes tragic, back to nothing. Which doesn't have to be terrifying. We enjoy playing the game, but eventual annihilation into Nothingness means we don't have to deal with the suffering that goes with the game.

In any case, I'm glad to read more and more criticism refuting Derleth's view. I didn't know the background for years, and when I read Lovecraft stories vis-a-vis the Lovecraft knockoff stories, I found the latter very dissatisfying, while I can read the former over and over again. Mosig notes that the "knockoffs" have completely missed the point, accepting Derleth's "good vs. evil" view of the pseudomythos. And it shows.

So, now I will take my semi-disturbed self, and begin my evil, sinister day by making some tea and an English muffin, and putting some laundry into the washing machine, then washing my floors. Then I will make my bed, wash dishes, go for a walk, and then back to some reading. Oh, the scandalous and shocking life of a deviant...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

From the Sky

Last night, I dreamt about two strange things. Both were at receptions or parties of some sort. In the first episode, I was talking to one of my colleagues where I teach. She asked if I was all right, because I looked like I was burning up with fever. The second part of the dream, I was with a group of magicians. They were talking about someone who had "retired" from the group. Someone had called them to see how they were, and the sense was that they were fine, but they were not going to come by any time soon. Someone asked the person who made the call if they would be able to speak to this person. "Possibly," was the answer. "But it's not a question of how he's doing; it's a question of whether or not the group can let go of him."

Earlier this week, I finally received an article I'd requested on interlibrary loan. It was a sort of "psychoanalysis for the dinner table", written in Vanity Fair in 1915, by none other than Aleister Crowley. It's written in his typically bombastic style, which probably would have been amusing to that magazine's readership. Though he can't help but to inject language from Liber Legis ("every man and woman is a Star", etc.) into the article, and I wonder if that audience would have found it to be anything but an eccentricity. In any case--Crowley talks about Freud and Jung, and about dream analysis. He declares that he kept track of his dreams for a month, and in that time, only two dreams seemed to have any significance outside of everyday events. His dreams could be tracked to something he read before going to sleep, a particularly intense chess match with a friend, or a conversation he might have had the day before.

The dream I mention above would fall into that category. I had a long phone conversation last night with a friend who I don't get to talk to very often, since he moved a couple thousand miles away. We were discussing things that later appeared in my dream--in particular, magical societies and famous long-running members. Probably not coincidentally, the colleague in the first part of my dream is one of the few people I know where I work who has made some kind of formal academic study into the areas I'm currently writing about. In short--this is a dream of the personal unconscious rather than the collective. But they can be just as instructive.

In a broader context--I now have an association with interlibrary loans and black holes. I'm used to book or article requests taking 2 or 3 days; the standard now seems to be 2 or 3 weeks, even if it's only being sent from one campus to another of the same school where I work during the day. Perhaps many people are on vacation, but there should also be far fewer requests in the summertime. No one seems to know where these items go for 2 or 3 weeks; hence, I think of them as falling "into a black hole", though they eventually come out intact on the other side. Maybe they know of my interest in drinking good wine, and assume I like everything "vintage", so they hold my requests for aging. Which is thoughtful, but books don't taste as good as wine, though a really old book will have a wonderful "bouquet" (aroma). Like wine, this is probably due to some kind of growth (fungal or bacterial) in the thing itself. In fact, it has been posited that reading old books can be like taking drugs, due to inhaling the fungi that tend to grow in the pages.

But returning to black holes. I have discussed the Kabbalistic "Tree of Life" before, with its 10 sephiroth. An 11th sephiroth has been posited underneath Binah and Chokmah, and above Geburah and Chesed. This "invisible" sephiroth is known as "Da'ath", and refers to the Abyss that one crosses in the journey from the temporal to the eternal. (Mr. Crowley comes in once again here, as the positing of Da'ath is attributed to him, but I'm pretty sure the idea pre-dates him. He may have been the one who popularized its use in magical philosophy).

(Click on the image to make it bigger).

If I may oversimplify for a moment--one might think of the bottom half of the tree as "Earth", and the upper part as "the Heavens", using that term very broadly. The tree is light at the top and dense at the bottom (really, it hangs upside down), and the lighter part is the realm of "spirit". The Abyss is located in the realm of Spirit, not on the "material" side of things, as you might expect. Metaphorically speaking--to cross the Abyss and not fall in would require one to be light on ego baggage. So, someone on a spiritual journey would have to do a lot of work on themselves and their weak areas before attempting this psychological leap. In a cosmological metaphor--it is the black hole in the middle of the heavens. I cannot help but think of Joseph Campbell and his functions of mythology--one function is to provide a reasonable cosmology or understanding of the universe. Interestingly--it is now known that at the center of our "heavenly" galaxy (and indeed, many, if not all, galaxies) there is a black hole. (This doesn't scientifically prove anything about anything, but it's an interesting thing to observe).

Another book I am finishing right now is Jake Stratton-Kent's "Geosophia", volume 1. It is about the history of Goetia, and it is incredibly well-researched and thorough in its treatment. He uncovers the origins of Greek mythologies, tracing their characters back to their various forms in different parts of Asia Minor. One of the things he addresses is the transference of the afterlife/underworld to the sky. He attributes the origin of this transfer to Heraclides of Pontus, writing around the 4th century BCE. Previously the dead were thought to travel through underground caves to the underworld, regardless of what kind of life they led. What is important is the changing roles of deities and spirits when the underworld was moved to the sky. "The resultant upheavals indifferently made objects of devotion into demons and restored lustre to those formerly despised". (p. 177) Eventually this would lead to the Platonic idea that separated the deity from the material universe. And thus--as Stratton-Kent notes--"This separation, which monotheistic theology occasionally considers its crowning accomplishment, is from another point of view one of the world's greatest doctrinal disasters." (p. 177)

Or, to put it another way--in Carl Jung's writing on Paracelsus--“The Church might exorcise demons and banish them, but that only alienated man from his own nature, which, unconscious of itself, had clothed itself in these spectral forms.” It is responsible for the psychological split that all of us experience--between "science" and "religion", between "good" and "evil", between "God" and the "Devil".

Of final interest--Jung also talks about the Axis Mundi, which translates to "the center of the world", and is a mythological metaphor for the place where the sacred and the profane intersect. He describes the center as "an infinite Abyss of mysteries." Da'ath has to do with dispersion, being scattered. And, (still Jung talking), "distillation begins at the center".

In short--what tears us apart is what we also need to put us back together.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Chaos, Anyone?

I've come to realize what my problem is with Jesus. I hear a lot about embracing Jesus and "being saved". As though suddenly opening a Bible or looking at an image of Jesus will cause my heart to overflow and explode. In fact, I can liken people who ask me to embrace Jesus to friends who say, "I know this really great, perfect guy--and he'd be perfect for you!" Then I meet the guy in question to be nice, and feel seriously underwhelmed. I mean, he might be a nice person, might do something interesting, might even be good-looking by some collective aesthetic standard. But I'm not feeling it. So--I think, "yeah, nice guy, wouldn't mind a chat over some coffee, but otherwise...nah."

What typically happens when I say "thanks no thanks" is a backward shift in tactic. The tone becomes ominous. "You HAVE to embrace Jesus, or you'll burn for all eternity." Now just a second. Here's this nice perfect guy, suddenly he's serial killer material. As in, "Love me bitch, or I'll kill you." Call me crazy if you wish, but this makes me just a tad uneasy. I'd get a restraining order, and move to an island under an assumed name if I encountered a person like that. That isn't what Jesus is supposed to symbolize. But that's what evangelists end up making him symbolize. Symbols change over time--they may still retain their original meaning for some, but this kind of repeated barrage of Jesus LOVES you/Jesus is going to PUNISH you ends up sounding like a form of torture porn, not liberation from suffering. Perhaps Christian missionaries and evangelists will want to ponder this.

On another note, I found an interesting blog by Hyperritual, who posted this Magical Probability Calculator (with thanks to Weiser Books for posting).The formulas come from Liber Kaos, written by Peter Carroll, one of the originators of the idea of Chaos Magic. While I understand the principles behind Chaos Magic, there is a superficial irony in the notion of putting together "chaos" with things like mathematical probability. We acknowledge the overriding condition of Chaos, and deal with it by using order and rationality.

If there is one activity that I think all humans engage in, regardless of education, culture, class, race, economic status, or religion, it's attempting to find order in chaos. Chaos is thought of as what we call "God", though it is more specifically like the idea of Tao, or the No-Thingness of reality in Hinduism and Buddhism. (More like the Eastern idea of God than the Western one). There is no rationality, because the Source is beyond anything like "mind", or anything that our egos can relate to. Hindu Satgurus, like the one I've received a mantra from, are fond of what Hindus call "leela"--the deliberate and senseless screwing up of something, with the intention of making you abandon your delusions of control, expectation, and outcome. "Leela" literally means "play", and was often attributed to Krishna when he played tricks on the Gopis, stole butter, and other such things. The word "play" is intentional here, because we tend to take ourselves, our goals, and our beliefs much too seriously.

Naturally, this will make some of you think of the Principia Discordia, the gospel of Eris (goddess of Chaos). It's a very funny read, and it's been described as "religion pretending to be a joke, or a joke pretending to be a religion". Some people have posited that this was written by Robert Anton Wilson, but the authorship is really anonymous. The basic idea that Principia lays out, in appropriately archane language, is that humans suffer the "curse of Greyface". They believe everything is somber and serious and have destroyed the joy of living. So, the Discordians fight back against "Greyface" by being ridiculously silly. Anyone who joins the "religion" is automatically declared a Pope.

This brings me back to a question posted by Weiser Books on their Twitter feed this week (paraphrased by me)--can one live a life according to "Chaos Magic", or is it just something theoretical, an abstract exercise? Can we really embrace "chaos" as a way of living in our societies? Our minds want sense and order--we want to classify, label, measure, and reason. Scientific method is based on causality (even though David Hume proved that causality is philosophically flawed). Cause and effect. We assume it, and scratch our heads when things fall outside of our sphere of understanding.In Eastern meditation, the Vedantics, who have no image of God at all, still meditate on something like a candle flame. The mind needs to focus on something. It's an incredibly rare occurrence if someone can do so and still live a normal life in the world. I would suggest that such a person has gone beyond being human. Even the originators of Chaos Magic themselves suggest using religion and its symbols "pragmatically".

In the end, it goes back to the idea of Surrender. (Which, by the way, is the meaning of the word "Islam"). We spend our lives making careers, families, setting goals. But it's all temporal, and has no value or meaning at the Eternal level. When the Adept crosses the Abyss, there is no ego left--the weight of the ego is systematically shed on the spiritual path. The same is true of the great saints of Catholicism--reading John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila shows you this burning away, and the Void that is created. This is the meaning of the Goddess Kali--her destruction involves stripping away all of one's delusions about reality until there's nothing left but naked Consciousness. To survive such a thing requires no attachments, just a willingness to accept everything as it comes without judging it against your ego's ethics and standards. Needless to say, this is incredibly difficult--and more difficult to switch back and forth between this state and the state of "living in the world".

In a little piece in the Principia Discordia called "Starbuck's Pebbles", we read: "The real reality is there, but everything you KNOW about "it" is in your mind and yours to do with as you like. Conceptualization is art, and YOU ARE THE ARTIST. Convictions cause convicts." (We are also helpfully told, "Never write in pencil unless you are on a train or sick in bed".)

Austin Osman Spare, anyone?

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


I subscribe to the Religion News Blog, which should be no surprise to anyone. As I scan the headlines, I see a lot about court cases and murder charges. Parents who starve their children as some kind of penance. People drowned as a result of some bizarre exorcism ritual. Most recently--a mother who burned her daughter as part of a voodoo ritual.

I think about this kind of thing in the context of folkloric "satanic" rituals, in which you get groups of people killing animals, or occasionally you will find a human being supposedly killed for such reasons. Like Lovecraft's "Necronomicon", there are a lot of people who believe that this is "real" magic. (In case you don't know--the Necronomicon is a fictional invention, but many people think it is a real occult grimoire).

This idea is a very old one in religion--bloody sacrifice is all over the Old Testament, and all religions have had some version of this in their distant past. In modern times it is often associated with black magic. The attribution, if not faulty, is unnecessary. A.E. Waite traces the idea of a "sacrificial victim" in black magic to a simple functional need--blood was not required for the ceremonies. Pacts required a written document, and it wasn't that easy to procure the right writing implements. So--the magician often had to slaughter his own lamb and tan the skin for this purpose. In modern times, assuming one would want to do such a ritual, the magician certainly has fine parchment and vellum at his or her disposal without going through that trouble.

Outside of the idea of "pacts", there are also old "natural" magic rituals that may call for the blood of an animal, or maybe even of the person. However, for those practicing today, there are obvious substitutions. Just as various herbs and essences can be substituted in incenses and oils for various purposes, those ingredients obviously can be dispensed with as well.

Blood is associated with life, and hence with one's "manna", or power. This at least is part of the psychology of its use. On the other hand--I've heard Swamis who refer to blood offerings (in this case to Kali) as being "impure". Blood is associated with the temporal body rather than the eternal soul. Hence, one should not offer blood, but true devotion.

For all this, you still hear about bloody sacrifice. It's probably not as prevalent as you would think; like many things, the media will tend to focus on the shocking, and treat it like it's the norm. Sacrifice is probably most prevalent today in traditions like Santeria (a sort of Catholic voodoo), in some tribal religions, and in small villages in Asia. Kali worshippers in rural parts of India are said to occasionally perform sacrifice--sometimes you even hear of a Tantric priest sacrificing a child. Amma has said that such practices are based on a misunderstanding of Kali. She is not a violent force to be appeased--she is the root of Consciousness, and as such, is very intense.

Intensity may be the key regarding such practices today. We live in fear of the Numinous, and we feel it has to be approached in grave ways. This is why you will not only see the idea of bloody sacrifice, but the need for very expensive tools in magical practices (e.g., sigils made of solid gold). Someone asked Lon Milo DuQuette about that very thing at his lecture on Goetia. Lon's response to the idea of gold sigils for demons was, "they're lucky if they get cardboard". The reality is that none of these things are necessary. It says more about the insecurity (and perhaps the inexperience) of the magician in question. Which goes back to something else said by Lon--in order to practice Goetia, "one must be a Solomon". Which means you have to be in control of yourself and willing to face the unknown with confidence. Often there isn't perfect confidence, so one needs a lot of fancy trappings to make oneself feel "like a Solomon".

Magic of any type is psychological, and as you know, that doesn't reduce or minimize it. It is highly symbolic, and all that matters is that you are able to connect with the symbols you are using. I remember a witch telling me once that you could do a Wiccan ritual with a feather, a match, a coin, and a drop of water (for each of the elements). When you examine the universe, it becomes more and more granular, until you realize there's not much to it that's "real" at all. When we take ourselves and rituals too seriously, it is because we are completely taken in by the illusions around us. One of the most fascinating things about psychology is how something can exist independently of you, but also be "just in your head" at the same time.

As humans we like illusions. We tell stories. The whole drama of our existence is based on stories. The scarier things sound, the more expensive things are, the more authentic they must be--they must be "better" or more "real". It's amazing how much time and energy we waste on that kind of absurdity. Often the only real thing is fear is such cases. But all of us are affected by it unconsciously.

A final thought--most of the Adepts that I have met over the years are people who didn't (or don't) take themselves too seriously. Being around them is like being around the Satguru--they radiate a joy and peace that comes from understanding in a real way (not just intellectually) that Life is a drama, and should not be approached in such a grave manner. And of course, the more ego baggage we lose on the journey, the more we find that rituals are at some point unnecessary for us. This is true of religion as well. Amma has said that rituals and deities and images are "ladders that we climb to reach our destination"--but they are not the destination. That said--the mind does work in images, so images will always be with us.