Trance and possession in deep Kerala

We are up before 3am. The moon is only just past full and at this hour the jungle is quiet and deliciously cool. When we arrive thirty minutes later it seems like the entire village, from little children to the elderly, is in attendance.

The temple is situated in the centre of a raised concrete slab, called a kavu, in the middle of a field. Lit up with torches and coloured lights the kavu’s a bright island amongst the night’s black sea. The energy is palpable; the kavu’s edges are thronged with people, a large pile of embers smoulders before us and a troupe of drummers provide an energetic beat, accompanied by some kind of droning horn or trumpet. One ritual has ended and a Theyyam kneels before the temple doling out blessings to a queue of people while nearby a headless chicken bleeds from the stump of its neck.

For a moment I worry that we have already missed the spectacle, but soon a bunch of assistants wearing white lungis emerges. They remove the chicken and separate the embers into four separate stacks. The tempo of the drumming increases with their preparation. I can feel it building; I’m not sure what it is but the atmosphere carries charge. My skin prickles and my heart races.

I clamber on to a bench at the back of the crowd, now thronging with bodies, so that I can see. The assistants gather bundles of dried palm fronds and lay them on the embers. At the end of the long dry season the fronds are tinderbox dry and ignite in seconds. Flames roar into the night sky and even standing at the back of the crowd the heat is fierce on my skin. The surging fire carries the crowd with it as everyone cheers and hollers while the drummers are now going hell for leather. It’s show time.

***

We are in the deep north of Kerala, ‘God’s own country’. It’s an apt description. We’ve travelled to beautiful stretches of beaches, along lazy backwaters riddled with canals and rustic villages; we’ve ascended mountains with sweeping views and visited picturesque tea plantations and relaxed cities (by Indian standards) all within the space of three weeks. The Malayalam people are gentle, relaxed and welcoming; their cuisine is redolent with fresh coconut, cardamom and chilli while the juices are fresh and the yoghurt lassies sweet. There is a 90% literacy rate here, the highest in India, and an unabashed pride in Keralan arts and culture: Kathakali, Kalariapayattu and Theyyam, rituals drenched in in meaning and mysticism. Kathakali is famous the world over for the subtleties and constraints of its movements and Kalariapayattu is one of the foundation stones of Eastern martial arts. For me, however, it was Theyyam, mysterious and less well known, that’s captured my curiosity.

***

From behind a bamboo partition the Theyyam emerges into the crowd covered in intricately styled red makeup and wearing an elaborate costume. Twin painted cobras adorn his chest, interweaving in helix pattern. The drummers and the trumpeter swarm around the Theyyam, as the assistants help affix his oversized headdress. Then the crowd parts and the musicians step back leaving the Theyyam standing alone before the fire. In the fiery light he appears demonic, spectral.

With two assistants holding each hand to support him, the Theyyam sprints forward and leaps through across the bonfire, through the flames to the other side. The villagers go berserk, screaming and yelling, urging the Theyyam on. With barely a moments rest the Theyyam spins around (or is spun around by the assistants) and leaps back through the flames. And then again! Again and again, the Theyyam runs and jumps through the fire, turns around and jumps through again. Between jumps more palm fronds are laid on to the fire, stoking it higher, flames licking the night sky above the temple’s roof. With every pass across the fire the drumming gets louder and wilder and the droning horn a hypnotic dervish. The crowd, myself included, are peaking in a state of rapture. There is some divine possession going on here and it’s not just the Theyyam who is feeling it. We are borne into a collective trance by the music, by the intensity of the flames and the manic intensity of the Theyyam leaping through the fire before us.

***

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In age, Theyyam predates Hinduism although the latter has assimilated it. The word itself derives from ‘Deivam’, the Sanskrit word for god. Theyyam performers become possessed by the deities whose legends they re-enact (generally avatars of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and the like) in order to bless the village and its inhabitants before the coming monsoons. They are held in family kavus in rural villages and are massive deals for the local communities. The success of the rains and the villages’ fortunes depend on the successful completion of these rituals. People return home specifically to watch and participate in the Theyyams. We met villagers now living in Bangalore, Mysore and further afield who had come back to their ancestral homes just for these Theyyams and do so every year. The rituals are accompanied by music, feasting and communal celebration. There’s a party atmosphere, a strong sense of community and tradition and a definite quality of aliveness to Theyyam. There’s an energy and realness that’s absent in the dead-handed rituals of Christianity and other Western ritual traditions. I have blogged before about participation mystique and the Theyyams are participation mystique of the highest order: a collective trance in which one individual is possessed by an avatar for the ongoing wellbeing of the community.

Although these are private rituals everyone is welcome, even us Western interlopers. Still, these are not rites for touristic consumption and at some Theyyams we are the only Westerners in attendance. Yet we are never given anything less than a warm welcome even if in some instances we watch from outside the temple grounds because of custom. Generally though, our presence is met at first with bemusement, followed by curiosity and then heartbreakingly beautiful levels of hospitality. “When you are our guests we treat you like family,” we are repeatedly told. We are proffered with copious amounts of chai, fed, led into family compounds and treated as if hospitality was a sacred, devotional act. It feels as if we have been admitted to a beautiful, intimate theatre.

***

After more than a dozen leaps back and forth across the fire the assistants suddenly block the avatars passage to prevent him making another jump. The Theyyam yells and tries to push through them, raises his staff in anger and beats his chest. It’s pure theatre but all part of the ritual. Who are these mere mortals to try and interfere with a god’s will? The assistants relent and open the passage to the bonfire, where the Theyyam makes another series of jumps, still helped along by his two minders. After one pass, the Theyyam runs up to the bonfire and tips it up with his staff. He bends on one knee and salutes the stars above as fiery embers rain down upon the ecstatic crowd.

Flames soar deliriously high into the night sky and the pile of fronds is running low. The assistants form another blockade in front of the Theyyam. Enraged, the Theyyam pushes and breaks their ranks with his godly might. The noise from both instrument and human is crazy. The drumming is the tempo of your average psytrance track. Accompanied on each side he makes one last dash through the flames. He raises his staff to the sky and utters a demonic roar. The god is in the house.

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***

Despite their wild design Theyyams possess a very formal structure. Make up and costuming can take hours to prepare. The performer’s face is painted with a variety of natural pigments such as coconut oil and turmeric. The designs vary but always include elaborate and detailed filigrees, each with their own mythological import. Likewise, the costumes are elaborate, made from natural materials and suffused with mythological meaning. The whole act of preparing the Theyyam for the performance is an integral part of the ritual, allowing him to settle towards the receptive trance state required to become an avatar of the god.

***

After the avatar appears, the Theyyam circles the temple and bestows his blessings upon it and its priests, as well as the sacred objects within the temple’s nave, the idol and the yoni and lingam. Then the villagers line up, proffering rupees at the Theyyam to receive their own blessings or admonishments. It’s somewhat anticlimactic after the intense spectacle we’ve just witnessed, but a critical part of the ritual. There’s an important social function to this, an inversion of the usual caste hierarchy, as the Theyyam performers hail from the Shudras, the lowest caste. These are hereditary positions, handed down from father to son, and have been so for hundreds of years. The Theyyams are universally men; our guide through the proceedings, Nayalam, informs us that there is only one Theyyam that involves women performers.

As the Theyyam disburses his blessings I watch as the temple priests decapitate another chicken with a machete to appease the angry god. The machete is blunt and it takes several hacks to cleave the neck. Real ritual is hard and bloody work but it cannot omit sacrifice.

***

In two days we attended seven Theyyam performances. Not all of them were as dramatic as Kandanar Kelan, but there were commonalities in each, including the types of trance entrainment technologies at play. These included:

  • fire and flame
  • polyrhythmic drumming
  • physical discomfort (through distension of the arms and legs, wearing heavy and cumbersome costumes or headdresses and weights)
  • sleep deprivation
  • spinning, stamping and shaking
  • mantra and repetition
  • blood sacrifice

Most of these are designed to help the performer reach the necessary trance state to transform into an avatar. They remove the egoic personality of the performer and allow the trance to deepen or the god to enter (depending on your belief system). More than a few are also aimed at the crowd. Within the drumming I observed that there is always one drummer who is maintaining the steady rhythm of a heartbeat. This entrains the body to the rhythm and tempo of the music and from here it’s very easy to manipulate the crowd into a trance state.

The next morning after the fire Theyyam I had that washed out feeling that comes from a massive ritual, party or acid trip. The previous night’s events seemed like a surreal dream. I’d come down.

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***

Kandanar Kelan was a mythical warrior god. Wandering through the forest he got trapped in a forest fire and climbed a tree to escape. There were two snakes in the tree. The fire consumed the tree, Kelan and the two snakes. Soon after another wandering warrior god came across the burnt body of Kelan and resurrected him.

The Theyyam ritual shows Kandanar Kelan’s anger towards the fire that burned him and the two snakes.

***

Two things struck me with the Theyyams: the universality of different trance tools in ritual acts and the importance of ritual as an expression of community cohesion.

There are tried and true techniques that we can use to construct ritual and magick. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; such tools have been used by humanity for thousands of years to attain altered states and make contact with different entities and modes or states of being. To the trained eye the devices used in the Theyyam rituals are precisely designed to alter the ordinary waking state of consciousness in performers and witnesses alike. Without this there can be no acceptance of the Theyyam as an avatar. To witness the Theyyam is not to watch some performer fall into a trance but to literally feel a god, or an aspect of a god, in my vicinity. And by feel I mean as deeply embodied as you can get. This feeling is necessary for the ritual’s success as a critical aspect of any magical act is the total conviction that the magical act is real. I can mentally deconstruct this as much as I like after the fact, but in the moment I must feel it totally and without hesitation in my heart, guts and everywhere else in between. The mind and inner critic must disappear at this juncture. If I had questioned any of the villagers as to whether they believed that a god was in their vicinity I doubt that anyone would have said no.

I also think it’s interesting to see how magical ritual is employed as a way of developing and maintaining community. Our Western communities are atomised and I think it’s no accident that there is a correlation with that atomisation and the anaemia of our social and cultural rituals. There are few, if not any, rituals in the West that engage us in trance and altered states of consciousness to create community.

I am reminded here of the sense of group resonance and cohesion that follows a gnostic mass or after several days of hard partying at a festival. If you accept the prevailing views of brain entrainment (check out Psychedelic Information Theory for a good overview of this) then groups engaged in common tasks tend to harmonise in their brain wave patterns. We all know those times when we’re in a group and it seems to function seamlessly and wordlessly. This is group resonance at work. It makes sense then that powerful ritual will act as group brain entrainment devices. Our communities require powerful trance-based rituals in order to come together and harmonise.

I should be clear that I’m not trying to romance the native here or suggest that we steal Theyyams from Keralan culture. I have no doubt that Keralan communities are plagued with the kind of social issues that plague all communities. They’re also stricken with the kind of poverty we in the West barely touch in our entire lives. What I am suggesting, however, is that we in the West need rituals that allow us to achieve mutually altered states of being, that show us the depth and reveal to us the full spectrum of conscious. Such rituals bind us together, creating a kind community Mystery School that helps build magic and social cohesion through participation in the sacred. We are a deeply disembodied culture and we need rituals that bring us back to ourselves that open us to feeling and being and which we can share in with others. Such rituals of course won’t remedy all social ills but they are an important step in uniting us through a shared experience that is outside the mundane. Given the universality of trance tools it’s not to great a leap to suggest that we employ some for our own purposes.

Imagine: instead of Great Uncle Kevin ruining every Christmas with his crass racism and drunken lechery, we could use him as a medium to bring our ancestors into the community for a visit. And instead of the usual inane banter across the neighbour’s fence or at the school gate, what if there was some consciously dedicated time to engage in some ritualised glossolalia and see what trance state we can attain and what it might reveal? Divination, group enchantment, the summoning of folk spirits… the ways are practically limitless.

There are Western analogies for these kinds of rituals. Bush doofs and festival culture comes immediately to mind, but the rituals I’m talking about don’t necessarily have to involve drugs or the messiness that bush doofs and festivals entail. Anything that invokes an altered state of conscious in participants is useful and, as I’ve noted above, there are many tools to achieve this that can be universally applied. Our Western world needs magic but we don’t need to search in other cultures to find it. Magic is as intrinsic to us as our humanity if we just open ourselves to the possibility.

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Travelling

Atu: The Magus

Lunar Intention: Union

Location: 15.6631° N, 73.7419° E (Mandrem Beach, Goa, India)

On the road again. The travelling life is a familiar and comfortable one, a flow state that I easily slip into. There’s a certain awareness and disposition that comes with this state: an embodied sense that surfaces at the start of any new journey.

Although I’ve always lived in Melbourne, and a ten-kilometre circle in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs at that, frequent travel has been a recurring theme in my adult life. I have travelled to lose myself, find myself and re-invent myself; I have travelled for love, marriage and to escape unhappy relationships; I have travelled for birthdays and I have travelled for deaths; I have travelled for family, with family and to symbolically let go of a dead family member; I have travelled on a whim and because I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life. I have consistently travelled to avoid my adult responsibilities in life but I have also travelled to leverage growth and change, because of spiritual inspiration or just because I thought it would make a good story later. Relevant to this blog, I have travelled to re-enchant my life whenever it feels bogged down in orthodoxy, monotony and order. Travel for me is the best counter spell to the curse of Greyface.

As a means of re-enchantment, travelling drops me into a state of deep experiencing that is marked from the numbed trance of my domestic life. The greatest tool of re-enchantment is being able to adopt the role of flâneur and cultivating the state of meditative contemplation that comes with a flâneur’s lifestyle.

Travelling re-enchants because it sharpens one’s psychic and somatic awareness. I am conscious of my being moving through new and unfamiliar environments; I carry an awareness of how my clothes hang on me, how new climates affect me and a material sense of the contents of my pockets and bags. I notice more the effects of food and my interactions with strangers. My sense of personal safety and responsibility is piqued; my curiosity about everything that goes on around me, insatiable. Travel tests my resilience and resourcefulness through a range of material and emotional discomforts. This method of re-enchanting allows me a greater sense of the limits of my personal boundaries, limits I am often not challenged to explore to any depth in the humdrum of life back home. Crucially, travel gets my creative juices flowing. The link between walking and creativity has been well documented and I find that the flâneur lifestyle agrees with this. I can happily walk for miles a day when travelling and my journal entries become essay length on all manner of topics.

Travel is my life for the next 18 months. I can barely comprehend this length of time and who I will be by the end. It has been 5 years in the making, as it took me some time before I could leave. I had to overcome a number of (material and psychological) financial obstacles, I ended one relationship and started a new one and I went on several shorter journeys in the intervening time. As the trip’s gestation period has been so long, the original motivation for this trip doesn’t exist anymore. When I first started planning this trip I wanted, in part, an avenue to avoid having to settle down but also a means to try and massively re-enchant my life through extended wandering. The nuclear option of re-enchantment through travel! Generally after a big trip I can maintain that heightened state of aliveness for anywhere up to 3 months. My hope was that by going nuclear I could make it more or less permanent or acquire the tools and resources to help me do so. The thing is my need to escape and re-enchant my life is not as strong now as it was 5 years ago. It has been an ongoing and well-integrated process for several years. Re-enchantment is not something I find somewhere else, but a continual conversation in the here and now. Furthermore, the travelling life is nice, but I’m at an age in my life where I coo over babies and daydream about what it would be like to own a house in the bush and know my grandchildren. I have transitioned to a more mature phase of life that doesn’t crave or revolve around constant escape and adventure.

So I am on the road again and in the curious position of having lost the original motivation to go on the road in the first place. I’m also well past the point where I have any interest in following well-worn tourist trails and tick-a-box travelling, if I ever really did (I wrote about this exact thing many years ago in my essay Khosanitis). I leave behind an amazing life in Melbourne and have little need for the nuclear option; the integration of my personal and magickal lives has taken many years but these days they are synonymous. Adding to all this is the deeply felt sense that when I return my life will be radically different. I will be living in the country, babies will be a thing and so will a new career that doesn’t involve a 9-5 grind. Effectively, this trip marks a distinct separation between two phases of my life. I think we all experience these moments. Most change occurs incrementally but sometimes events and circumstance dramatically pull down the curtains, leaving us in no doubt that one act has ended and another is about to begin. This is my current reality. I am enjoying something of an intermission between acts, but an intermission that’s still a feature of the whole play and one which will determine what happens in the next act. I feel that this intermission and the absence of a need to travel for any other reason than for itself gives me immense freedom to create something new and lasting from this journey.

I like this freedom. It’s not the freedom of running away to solve a problem or the freedom of desperately trying to re-enchant a life that has gone stale. Which is freedom ‘from’. Now I have freedom ‘to’: the freedom to be, to create and to dive as fucking deep as I can. Antero Alli says that to fly we need to have both feet on the ground. With my feet firmly planted I can obtain great heights but also greater depths. Apart from a vague arrow on a map, I have no real idea of where I’m going, but I do know that with every step the ground beneath my feet becomes illuminated. The world is a massive place but at least I can see where I stand.

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Paying death’s wages

A while back, I posted about how a couple of encounters with my own mortality had served as deeply personal initiatory experiences. The post garnered a lot of feedback from a range of people, both online and in person, which took me completely by surprise. What surprised me even more was the disparity in the tone and flavour of the feedback I received. Most people seemed to get the post and gave supporting comments about me showing vulnerability and insight, which was nice (flattery will get you far); more than a few, however, seemed to miss the point entirely and I was flooded with messages along the lines of ‘get well soon’ or ‘I hope your results are in the clear’. This confused the hell out of me and led me to wonder if I had communicated my experiences with a lack of clarity.

My intention in writing the piece was not to garner sympathy but to attempt a personal meditation on a recent cancer scare and show how encounters with illness and death can lead us into deeper states of being. Yet, sympathy I received in abundance.

After mulling it over and speaking to several close friends I came to several conclusions about why my post wasn’t received as I’d intended:

  • I’d failed to communicate the story as effectively as I could and therefore people had drawn the wrong conclusion (however, this doesn’t explain why many people did get what I was writing about)
  • It was published on Facebook and nobody actually reads anything on Facebook, not being the greatest medium for nuanced communication
  • The piece had cancer as subject matter and some readers were too triggered to actually absorb the contents. As a friend said to me: “people lose their shit when cancer is involved”
  • Some readers just didn’t want to know about it, for the same reason that they don’t seek out initiatory experiences or encounters with death in their own lives

I don’t claim to know which of these is the correct answer or even if there is a correct answer, but I do think the last couple of these raises some interesting issues.

Writing a meditation on illness and death is a little against the grain for the way in which our culture tells us to direct our attention. People don’t want to know about death. It’s saved for the end of life when, having been staved off for so long, it makes its presence known with interest. I suspect also that people aren’t interested in discussions of illness or death because they would then have to contemplate their own deaths. It’s that superstitious mindset that says if you don’t think about or mention a thing then it may never happen. And if you contemplate your death than you really need to start contemplating the meaning of your own individual life.

As Stephen Jenkinson writes, we live in a death-phobic society. However, in order to fully live, we need to pay the wages of death. It’s an interesting, gnomic turn of phrase and I think it’s absolutely spot on.

We must pay death’s wages by carrying death in our pocket through our entire lives. Death is present from the moment we are born, from the second of our first inhalation, the imbued, deeply embodied knowledge that life is preciously finite and infinitely precious. Initiation, a different kind of birth, wakes us up to this: welcome to life; one day you will die.

Initiation shows us that death is the price we pay for being alive in this world. Death is the final word; without it our lives have no meaning. In mathematical terms, a life is a set that is composed of all its elements. Any contemplation of life in its entirety must include its own death as an element. We can ignore death but we cannot exclude it. We cannot forestall it. Death doesn’t make deals and it exacts its due eventually. The problem is that generally we can’t afford to pay in a lump sum at the end; the price is too high, the suffering too great, and then we do anything to avoid going gentle into that good night. By honouring death, the little death present in every single moment as it bursts into existence and vanishes into the past, we give meaning to life. Death must receive the acknowledgement that it’s due. When we carry death at our side our lives are deeper, richer, more purposeful.

Furthermore, we must leave room for death’s voice in our lives not just for ourselves but for those we know and love. To love someone is also to carry the weight of their death. When my mum died five years ago, my dad and I took quite divergent paths to how we processed our grief. My route was to try and ‘let go of it’, as if the grief was something that needed to be processed and resolved. In contrast, my dad had my mum’s ashes interred in a metal box (painted in Collingwood colours, no less), which he placed in a part of the garden surrounded by wombat figurines, a totemic animal for her. Even to this day he sits out there and talks to her as he has his morning cigarette. My brother and I worried at first that his inability to ‘let go’ or move on was unhealthy. It took me some time to realise that the opposite was true; that my desire to move on was the unhealthy desire whereas my dad’s was perfectly natural. It is the duty of the living to bear the dead. We need to retain that kernel of grief in our hearts to keep the dead alive, to remind us of the imprint they have left upon us, in our hearts and souls. That grief reminds us that we in turn will be grieved and begs the question of how we would like to be grieved.

Even though I had begun practising ancestral rituals at the time I was blind to this truth and it took me a long while to realise it. In fact, it was only upon looking my own death in the face did I fully understand my obligations to those ancestors who have died. This knowledge took my ancestral practise to greater depths than I could have even realised without it.

Before departing overseas I had the pleasure of writing up my own death plan. It was an interesting experience contemplating how I wanted to be remembered by my family and friends and my hope that my personal values, what I stood for in life, would be honoured. I’d like my death to be a celebration of my life: music, poetry and dancing are mandatory. I would like my ashes scattered along the Black Spur in Healesville and I want a Thelemic ritual. Yet, such is the taboo of discussing death in my life that I felt awkward telling me siblings that I had done so. Though it was received as I’d hoped, it was that case again of not wanting to name a thing unless it happened. I suggested to my dad that I do his death plan too.

“What do I care, I’ll be dead,” he responded.

“Okay then, we’ll play the Carlton Football Club theme song at your funeral.”

No you will not!

“So you do care what happens at your funeral,” I replied, laying down my trump card.

And we do care, as much as we try and avoid thinking about it. This is how we pay death’s wages; contemplating the legacy we leave behind us and for future generations. Death will eventually be paid. We can pay it in instalments or in a lump sum and this choice informs the depth and meaning in our lives.

Before I end this post, I want to clarify as emphatically as I can that I do NOT have leukaemia. I have precursor cells to leukaemia in the same way that a mole is a precursor to a melanoma. And a very mild form of leukaemia at that: so mild I probably wouldn’t even notice that I had it. The likelihood that it will develop into anything is 10-15% so that’s 85-90% that it won’t. Given that there is a 30% chance the average person will develop cancer at some point in their life, I’m already winning. Also, I maintain a very healthy lifestyle, so knock those odds down a few percentage points and I’m winning even more. I’m fit, healthy and have a deeply rich life.

At the same time there is a great unknown attached to all of this. Leukaemia is a scary concept to contemplate no matter how benign. A course of immunotherapy isn’t exactly a holiday, so there is a sense of some Damoclean sword hanging above me. But here is the crux: I am incredibly grateful for this. I am grateful for these experiences that remind me of my own mortality, of the fragility and ephemerality of life, because they also make me appreciate the preciousness of life. Without seeing my life flash before my eyes in a Balinese hospital or contemplating my own mortality in the Bardo that is waiting for an appointment with a cancer specialist, I would still be skimming on the surface of life without recourse to contemplate my own death. These experiences remind me I only have one shot and drive me to live more deeply. I want to carpe the fuck out of that diem.

But even in the midst of a deeply rich life death must be paid. One day my life will end. It is this death and the grace in which I depart that will provide my life with its ultimate meaning.

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Ten points for an eight-pointed game

Atu: The Fool

Lunar Intention: Decompression

Location: 8.74° N, 76.72° E (Varkala, India)

  1. The fundamental rule is that there are no rules, rules serving to constrict the creative expansion and flow necessary for play. Everything else is a guide towards creative expression.
  2. To truly meet a place, feet must kiss soil as one would kiss a lover
  3. Not all those who wander are lost but it’s more fun if they are
  4. Experience always demands some form of opening in response
  5. Discomfort is a necessary comfort
  6. Propitiate the local gods and divine the spirit of a location
  7. Breath and skin are the only avenues home, but you won’t arrive unless you travel both at the same time
  8. Dream pieces can be brought back to create puzzles
  9. The sacred exists in everything but especially within the profane
  10. Interpret all phenomenon as if they were the manifestation of the divine (according to one’s own interpretation of it) into one’s life

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Radical presence

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold- Yeats

My life has been hectic these past three months! In a little over a fortnight I will board a plane overseas and begin an 18-month global pilgrimage, so my days, not to mention quite a few restless nights, have become a logistical frenzy. Moving my possessions into storage, tying up loose ends, sorting finances and working out budgets, updating addresses, obtaining visas and vaccinations; buying gear, saying farewells to family and friends and shifting between different housesits every second week. As soon as we unload the car and put down some tentative roots in a strange new abode, we’re cleaning up after ourselves, reloading the car, saying our goodbyes and moving on to the next place. All the while I’ve been working a full-time job, planning a workshop, running a counselling business and performing the odd shiatsu here and there. As a consequence, my creative outlets have dried to a trickle, I’ve barely engaged in any ritual practises (and when I do I’m usually too tired to do so with any kind of depth) and I carry a strange, disembodied feeling of having drifted away from my own centre and the state of being present that comes with it. So much so, in fact, that it feels like the work right now is just learning how to become centred and present again. I say this by way of explanation, not apology- I am completely responsible for myself and for letting things slide in this fashion.

However, I was complaining about the effects of the constant moving and planning to my teacher, Arion—more by way of apology than explanation—and he said something in response that struck me:

“But this is just an excuse for not showing up. It’s only the surface personality that says it’s affected. Do you think that the constant moving around changes who you are underneath- there is an eternal underlying you whose identity doesn’t depend on always being in the same place. You don’t have to be in the same house all the time to be present as yourself.”

He was right of course, but it led me to wonder how I’d managed to let things slip so easily and why my ability to remain present and centred was so brittle in the face of ephemeral circumstance.

Even if we are not overtly conscious of it, we intuitively understand that there’s a deeper level of self, which is eternal and unchanging, the true ‘I’ in the personality’s whirling storm. As David Abram so eloquently puts it:

…the life-world has various layers, that underneath the layer of the diverse cultural life-worlds there reposes a deeper, more unitary life-world, always already there beneath all our cultural acquisitions, a vast and continually overlooked dimension of experience that nevertheless supports and sustains all our diverse and discontinuous worldviews

A huge part of my work the past twelve months has been learning how to cultivate more of this ‘I’ in myself, bringing its steady presence to the fore so that I am buffeted less by the winds of mood and event. I’m not talking about being mentally in the present, as is so popular in the mindfulness movement, although that’s one aspect of it. What I refer to is a radical presence: a total, integration of my perceptual, sensory, emotional and rational faculties in this very instant and complete congruence in my resulting action. Or a radically heightened state of awareness and aliveness in my being. Yes it’s a mouthful. I’ll leave it to David Abram again to say it more poetically and succinctly than I:

[Presence] must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity in adjusting oneself…to those contours. It is this open activity, this dynamic blend of receptivity and creativity by which every animate organism orients itself to the world.

Through cultivating radical presence I open myself fully to my immediate experience and allow myself to act spontaneously in response, without being laden by the baggage of premeditation, conditioning, fear or sheer incongruence between my various and different faculties. And if there is incongruence between those faculties—when my skin says yes and my heart says no, for example—then I am aware and alive to this incongruence. I do not push it aside but claim it as my own, as part of me. Because it is.

Arion gives the metaphor of how people go through life with the intensity throttled at 15%. Most aren’t even aware that they are at 15% intensity or that their lived experience is so diminished. Through radical presence, the aim is to cultivate 100%.

At times it’s felt like hard work. And how tenuous my success if I can be so easily knocked from my centre through distraction and logistical overload!

I find it curious that becoming present could be hard work.

I also consider it one of the great tragedies of modern life that we are only granted one shot at existence but spend our time pursuing myriad ways avoiding showing up and being present in the world. We prize the mind at the expense of the body, numb ourselves with alcohol, television and banality and have stunted our sexuality. We’ve lost the ability to move our bodies with creative and flowing expression and the art of being present is not taught let alone understood. As a consequence we are thrown off our individual centres of being. I recognise when this happens in myself; my personal centre is somewhere outside of me and with that comes a dissociated feeling. There is deep incongruence in my response to events and often my response is calculated (sometimes consciously and sometimes not) to avoid true awareness and to nullify or take the pressure off aliveness.

Children do not seem to have this problem but there appears to be something that happens in our childhood or early teenage years that tells us that desensitizing ourselves to the intensity of life is the safest option, that to fully feel the world, to fully inhabit ourselves is a terrifying and overwhelming experience to be avoided. And so we turn life’s volume down.

My job as a counsellor and shiatsu therapist is that of a trail guide leading people back to their aliveness, through developing awareness and physicality. We inhabit bodies in space that breathe, feel, emote, think and speak. The work—and the art—is learning how to balance these essences so that they are fully integrated in each single moment. I help people cultivate presence. And if I want to be a good guide I must know which paths to travel; hence my commitment to cultivating radical presence. There also seems to be something quite healing about being present for the benefit of others. My homie, Carl Rogers, had a lot to say about presence:

I find that when I am the closest to my inner, intuitive self –when perhaps I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me…At those moments, it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself, and has become part of something larger. Profound growth and healing are present

Most of my healing has been in this regard; I used to be the least present person in the room. I’m sure we’ve all met those people who are noticeable by their absence. That was once me, so I know those paths well. But radical presence goes beyond even Rogers’ admittedly mild definition. Radical presence is a commitment to showing up not just in an hour of therapy but in moment after moment every day for the rest of our lives. It’s turning up the volume of that throttle again, opening oneself up to greater levels of being and intensity ad finitum. We will never reach 100% intensity and nor should ever hope to. Where could we go from there?

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Bur still, we must press on…

I’m not surprised that I so easily lost my centre. I’ve been programmed and culturally conditioned to avoid it at all costs and play a role where it’s easier to numb out than dive deep. And to be honest, moving around every week, having to continually reprogram my body to different routines and sleep schedules while taking on a metric fuck-tonne of other work is not the most enjoyable experience. It’s stressful, draining and unpleasant. But that’s not the point. The point is that I show up to all experience. Life is not a take-it-or-leave it kind of deal. You’re all in or you’re not. By dissociating away from the stress and allowing myself to be swept away from my centre, I am relinquishing control of my own experience and muting out parts of my life. Life is made for aliveness, as trite as that sounds. Yes there are experiences in life where it is safer to turn the volume down or mute out but even these must be felt and integrated at some stage (read The Body Keeps the Score for more on this). But the muting should not be a default setting. And a couple of months of hectic planning before an extended (and what will be an undeniably awesome) overseas trip is not really in the ballpark of unpleasant experiences to be toned down. It’s just a conditioned response.

In telling a friend about my experience, she reflected that it sounded like I’d been going through an initiation. I hadn’t considered it in that way before, but I totally agree with her. And every initiation requires that we be present to it so that we can carry its lessons with us into life. Inititations heighten experience. So radical presence is a commitment to owning the shit as much as I would the gold, as they’re both of equal value to an alchemist. And radical presence is the alchemy that transmutes experience into aliveness. Radical aliveness, if you will. So back to the centre I return to recommence the task of claiming the aliveness that is my birthright.

As it happens, a few days ago I completed my death plan as part of my travel preparations and requested that Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life be one of the songs played at my funeral. I hope that when I die I’ve earned the right to have that track played.

Neurocam and the theatre of re-enchantment (Part 3)

So deeply did some of the Jejune Institute’s participants descend down the rabbit hole that the project’s creators had to organise a mass debrief and closing ritual to gently return them to the real world. By the time it had wound up, nearly ten thousand people had signed up with the Institute but nobody knew what it actually was. Was it a) alternate reality game, b) strange cult or c) bizarre participatory art project? It’s the subject of the Spencer McCall’s somewhat histrionic 2013 documentary The Institute, which ends up drinking the Kool Aid and leaving the audience no wiser by its end.

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Jejune Institute debrief

Had the Jejune Institute not been created in the city that had also given birth to the Cacophony Society, Discordianism and Emperor Norton, I’d consider it a direct rip-off of Neurocam: An opaque organisation with no clear motive or purpose, muddied with mis- and disinformation, that sends its participants on crazy missions for no obvious rhyme or reason. Sounds awfully familiar.

It’s probably not helpful to compare, but I see Jejune as an example of what Neurocam could have been. Unlike Neurocam, the Jejune Institute had greater resources, narrative structure and went on for much longer, although it’s much easier to undertake massive art projects (the answer was c, by the way) in the US than Australia where the scale of everything, including arts funding, is so much greater. And it’s that scale which excites me. Think about it: that ten thousand people signed up for an organisation they had no clear idea about with the sole desire to have their realities fucked with points to a genuine human need. Similarly, by signing up for Neurocam we were aiming for a state of art-induced psychosis, where the barriers between reality and performance become permeable. Neurocam gave us that in part. The Jejune Institute’s participants received it in spades.

I’m a gamer from way back and using language and imagination to enchant my reality has been deeply imprinted. ARGs never really did it for me; mostly they seemed to be elaborate efforts in product placement and fuck anything that the dead hand of neoliberal corporatism touches. Also, most ARGs are centred on problem solving rather than character and interaction, which is fun to a point but not particularly fulfilling. I’ve always found LARPing to be immensely enjoyable although I think that’s more from the catharsis that comes from bashing things with giant foam swords than any inherent fantasy. The problem I find with all three is that they approach a sort of uncanny valley that strives for verisimilitude but always comes up short.

This is why Neurocam and the Jejune Institute are so powerful. Through participation you surrender control of your reality and enter a liminal zone where interpretation of reality is multivalent and there is no internal leap of imagination required, because any fucking thing could be possible. These are play and the imagination’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, the places we run to when tabletop roleplaying no longer cuts the mustard. Possibility abounds. An immersive game world is created around you, which is beguiling and almost impossible to extract yourself from without debrief.

A similar device is used in David Fincher’s 1997 movie The Game, where Michael Douglas slowly has his entire reality undermined to the point of madness and thus wakes himself up from the torpor that his life had become. Because that’s what we ultimately want from these immersive experiences: to be shaken awake from our slumber and to know magic and possibility. And the only way to get it is to be driven towards madness.

At the end of it all though, we are just participants relying on external forces to re-enchant our world. Even Jeff Hull, the creator of the Jejune Institute talks about wanting to “give participants experiences” with just enough leeway for independent thought. That is, they are guided throughout with bare autonomy. I find this troubling. There must be a line between subverting our reality as our own agents rather than as actors in another’s charade, which harks back to the issue of immediacy I discussed in the previous post. How do we create our own re-enchantment that is not reliant on the imaginations of others?

A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished by the Wisest Men

<em>Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures</em>

Willy Wonka had it right. So too did the Symbolists who played games to distort their reality, the derivé being a case in point. Ten years ago in Kathmandu I swallowed a choice block of hash and took myself on a derivé through its narrow and twisted thoroughfares, exploring the many old temples and shrines that litter the city, dodging cows, cars and monkeys and wandering with no direction or intent, guided only by the random flash of sign or symbol or sudden feeling of instinct. For six hours, I felt as if I was living in a vast magical ritual full of purport and occult meaning and saw a Kathmandu that exists on the other side of the liminal veil.

This kind of self-derived re-enchantment comes from a derangement of the senses however it is done (with chemicals, ritual, dance, movement, voice, games or whatever the imagination can produce). In fact, the imagination is the only limit on how you can achieve such derangement. Aleister Crowley suggested pretending you’re a puppet whose every move is controlled by ‘Ajna’. Antero Alli recommends going out for a walk and only seeing the spaces between things. The aim is to walk towards madness without actually going mad (I use the term mad to mean a complete derangement of rationality and the senses rather than as a perjorative) and therein lies the art and also the danger. You may not come back but unless you want to spend the rest of your days as an empty husk on the couch glued to your reality TV shows, you have no choice. You must take that leap!

Games and art have their place. Neurocam enlivened my world by expanding what was possibly in my reality and through it I met some great (and not-so-great) people and had a fun time. But I was motivated by a desire for re-enchantment, to have my world fucked with, and rather than do it myself I handed that responsibility over to strangers. And if the Jejune Institute attracted nearly ten thousand people this suggests that I am not alone and that there is a general discontent with the state of our individual realities. Sometimes it’s necessary to hand over the keys of our derangement to others. And while this is something which Neurocam, the Jejune Institute or anything external can provide, every time we go through an initiation or rite of passage we give away our mental and physical integrity to others. I may touch on this in future posts. Ultimately, however we are responsible for the re-enchantment of our own worlds.

So go forth, walk towards madness but never find it. Let imagination be your guide.

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Neurocam and the theatre of re-enchantment (Part 2)

For me, the question of what Neurocam actually was is the least interesting one. In fact, it was exactly this question that precipitated Neurocam’s demise. Far more interesting are the questions of what Neurocam created, what it could have been and why it failed.

The prosaic explanation is that Neurocam was an interactive art experiment by Melbourne Artist Robin Hely, whose oeuvre is centred in the manipulation of his audience. Hely describes Neurocam as being:

…loosely based on the idea of unwitting audience participation as explored by John Fowles’ 1966 novel, The Magus, in which the main protagonist’s entire reality is gradually subverted by what is presumed to be an elaborate work of theatre, in which the relationship between director and audience is redefined and the world itself becomes the stage.

This key idea can be traced back to G.K. Chesterton’s 1905 novel Club of Queer Trades, in which an organization known as the Adventure and Romance Society set about perpetrating complex theatrical fabrications in order to give individuals a series of unexpected life-changing experiences.

Project Neurocam similarly attempts to mask its content, context and objectives in an attempt to construct spontaneous, evolving narratives where the participants are a key component of the work itself and the role of the artist is continually being redefined by the involvement of the audience.

Neurocam’s original website contained the following by a quote by the organisation’s ‘CEO’ Bridget Fisher:

Some of the most rewarding experiences we have come about through random circumstances of which we have no real understanding. It is sometimes important to commit to something we know very little about if the act of commitment in itself becomes part of an experience.

Every person who signed up for Neurocam did so because they wanted to have their reality fucked with on some level. Underneath there was a desire for re-enchantment, to have the carpet pulled out from them as they are exposed to something beyond their ken. There was a yearning desire to participate in a greater mystery than that offered by mundane reality. Why else would someone sign up to strange and shadowy organisation and allow themself to be sent on weird assignments for no obvious purpose?

And in that respect Neurocam worked. It asked its participants to accept that answers were out of their control. Relax, have fun and accept whatever comes up.

Not knowing also subtly forces to question our own reality; every situation becomes multivalent with interpretation, which is why some random guy crossing the street to ask me the time can be perceived as a test by the agents of Neurocam. This constitutes re-enchantment of the world, pure and simple. Re-enchantment recognises the subjectivity of our own experience and that there are potentially hundreds of explanations for even the most objective-seeming occurrences. Re-enchantment causes us to question the certainty of our reality.

I am reminded here of Thomas Pynchon’s magnificent The Crying of Lot 49, in which the protagonist Oedipa Maas is made executor of her ex-lover’s estate and becomes embroiled in a vast, far-reaching conspiracy that progressively engulfs her reality with each new revelation. I believe that Neurocam and The Crying of Lot 49 describe a system obverse to that of progressive initiation.

In most initiatory mystery systems, the candidate becomes increasingly intimate with a central mystery as he or she progresses through that system. From a rank outsider who knows nothing, each initiation reveals a different aspect and deeper levels of that mystery, so that by the time of the final initiation they will have enough knowledge to comprehend the central mystery in its entirety. The simplest analogy is that a piece of the jigsaw is added with each initiation, but each added piece is chosen specifically to shed light on what has come before and hint at what awaits in further revelations.

However, for Oedipa Maas and the participants in Neurocam, every time a new mystery is revealed it only complicates the picture. There is no objective truth to be grasped at the end of it all, just further confusion and paranoia. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Maas waits for the big reveal, the “crying of Lot 49” in auctioneer parlance, which will either explain everything or, more likely, send her into utter madness as the conspiracy she has unearthed breaches the ability of her mind to contain an understanding of it.

Conspiracy theories are appealing and addictive because they are the mind’s ways of systematising the ineffable connections between disparate events. They bring order to the chaos, because to abandon oneself to chaos is supposedly to head towards madness. But what if the truth was that to bring order to chaos is madness. What if accepting the inevitable chaos of the world we live in is the truly sane response. This is what Neurocam asked of its participants as we went down the rabbit hole and embraced what would socially be considered madness. As HP Lovecraft infamously said:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

However, as humans we can only tolerate so much uncertainty. The nature of the human mind is that it needs to contain and understand its experiences, like Oedipa Maas trying to make sense of the complicated conspiracy of Trystero and Thurn und Taxis. And whilst Neurocam may have engaged its participants in a mystery, those participants couldn’t help but dedicate themselves to solving that mystery.

Neurocam’s greatest success was creating an entire community and subculture devoted to working out what Neurocam was. This was an inadvertent consequence that seemed to take even Hely by surprise:

Once the Neurocam community noticed Henstock’s blog (which turned up on a basic Google search of “Neurocam”), hundreds of operatives followed suit and started their own Neurocam blogs. Within weeks an online search on Neurocam revealed several pages all linking to various first-hand accounts from Neurocam participants detailing their latest experiences. This rapidly evolved into a series of online forums dedicated to collectively solving the Neurocam mystery.

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The formation of Neurocam’s online communities also had a lot of benefits beyond providing a means to engage with a broader audience. As the project was initially set up with a view to providing experiences exclusively for individuals, the rise of the online communities added another layer to the work. It allowed participants to work together with a collective goal – to collaboratively construct their own idea of what Neurocam was. This created endless speculation and theories about who or what was behind the project, which then become an integral part of the work. Neurocam, it seemed, was whatever its participants projected onto it.

I suspect that this is the point where Hely lost control of his project and Neurocam began to jump the shark. When the focus of Neurocam turned from blind participation to solving a mystery it became a piece of theatre. I also think because Hely didn’t foresee this occurring, he lacked the narrative drive to sustain it. It was only a matter of time before Neurocam collapsed under the weight of its own mythology.

In his essay Immediatism, Hakim Bey defines art and experience as existing on different grades of mediation. Watching a movie, for example, is a purely mediated experience. The audience sits on one side and is but a witness to the projections played out before them. A less mediated form of art would be role-playing games, where the participants are characters in the action, but are nonetheless still being led through a pre-configured scenario. A completely unmediated form of art would be a game of exquisite cadaver or a potluck dinner, where every participant is a co-creator of an event where the outcome is yet to be determined.

In the form of a mystery school, Neurocam existed as an immediate participatory art project. When the scene moved from participation to speculation then it morphed into mediated theatre and so the magic was lost. Neurocam became empty speculation not participatory mindfuck, destroying the sole reason for its own existence.

I don’t think Hely expected Neurocam to grow as big or carry on for as long as it did. I also don’t think he anticipated that an entire community would spring up ready to solve a mystery that really wasn’t a mystery but an experience with no aim or end. At its peak it was a fantastic ride, but it could not be sustained, as the natural tendency of the participants was to try and unravel it. And so it collapsed.

To be concluded…