Notes on an initation

The dark clouds look like an angry dragon coming in over the water at sunset. They move and coalesce as the dragon soars overhead, taking the remainder of the daylight with it. Facing the windows I intone the words of Liber Resh to the vanishing light and sit down to meditate, in preparation for the night ahead.

I am holed up in a cold apartment in a different city, awaiting my initiation as a Neophyte into the A∴A∴ To say that I’m shitting bricks is an understatement. I’ve been through plenty of initiations in my time but this one feels like it’s going to be a true ordeal, in every sense of the word. Naturally there’s nothing out there in the public domain of what I am about to endure, but I’ve heard whispers and read stories. I know of Crowley’s escapades on Cefalu and if I know anything about the A∴A∴ I know that it doesn’t fuck around.

I unconsciously put on some music and then immediately and consciously turn it off. Music, any media, diffuses tension and I’m trying to prevent energy leaks: those actions or devices that depress the latent energy or relieve the tension in any situation. These might be physical tics, habitual actions (like checking Facebook or my phone) or putting on some music to cut through the overwhelming silence. The power of an initiation rests in the unknown and initiatory tension is like a volume dial: the higher you go, the more intense the experience, so it helps to ratchet it up as much as you can.

I consider just packing it all in and going home. I wonder if I really want to go through with this. I have a difficult relationship with Thelema. There is no doubting the genius of Aleister Crowley and I know his system, as a path of mystical and magickal attainment, works. I also love the central premise of a society based around the individual (as an evolutionary step up from the family and, before that, the clan), the concept of finding one’s own individual will, respecting the autonomy of other individuals, rejecting old-world values of sin and restriction and the idea of a personal relationship with a philosophy that is accountable to no other. Also, the melding of Eastern practises with Western Hermetic Traditions tickles my syncretic fancies. On the other hand, I find the overly formal nature of the published rituals, the Victorian-era pomposities and the bloated levels of title and rank (in a philosophy that supposedly values the individual over the collective) to be at odds with my own values. And Uncle Al’s personal attitudes towards women and non-whites are troubling to say the least. So Thelema is not a system that sits easily with me. But that also makes me grateful. I’d rather a constant struggle with a belief system that keeps me vigilant and thinking, than to swallow something whole without a skerrick of critical thought.

The groundwork for this initiation has been the most difficult of all. As a Neophyte within the order I am symbolically a corpse. Below Neophyte, as a Probationer, I am not even that: qlippoth husks in the Abyss. This is the Path of Great Return. So through this initiation I will symbolically die to the profane and mundane world I have lived in all my life and come alive to the true, initiated world. On the Qabalistic Tree of Life I am at Malkuth. Kether beckons far above me. It is a long climb up.

I sit in silence and listen to the waves crash on to the beach outside. I could lose myself in their white noise. Apart form anything else, some time away from the heaviness of the past few months is welcome. Time to reflect and recharge. I’ve always found initiations to be a good way of taking stock of my life. Leading up to this initiation I have certainly at times felt dead. I’ve been struggling with my energy again: perpetually tired, short of breath, my body a field of hitherto undiscovered sensations and aches. I fear that I am undergoing yet another period of post-dengue fatigue and wonder if I have pushed my adrenals too far in trying to charge through. With my recent cancer scare I also dread something deeper. My most recent initiation in the OTO, back in December, also pertained to death. How much of my recent health experiences have been bound up in these initiations? It seems like every initiation I go through has some real-life significance either before or after.

What is an initiation, anyway? Initiations are found in every culture at all junctures in history upon earth. There’s a solid argument that much of our current societal woes stem from a lack of formal initiations in society. Boys don’t become men, they just drift into a nebulous and indeterminately long adolescence. Women too, to a lesser extent. We live in a society that does not empower or teach its children to become adults. This was traditionally the role of initiation ceremonies.

Put simply, an initiation is a ritual that symbolically transports the individual from one state of being to another: from child to adult, from adult to elder, from outsider to club member and so on. A good initiation ritual also imparts some of the teachings, wisdom and responsibilities of this new state or new group onto the candidate. For example, in indigenous Australian initiation rituals, boys are taught the traditional songs and the responsibilities that go with them. Then their front tooth is knocked out. This symbolises that they have suffered an ordeal, passed a test, to wield this lore. This is a common motif.

Initiation is part of life. Some are formal: ceremonial initiations such as those of the OTO or freemasons. Some are group-hazing rituals like in US fraternities. Where a culture lacks formal initiation rituals they will be subsumed informally into society and may even be self-directed. Think of kids trying weed or acid for the first time as a rite of passage. In every case, the intent is the same. It is to step into a new degree of experience and responsibility in life. There is something about initation that seems intrinsically necessary to us as humans. We require these experiences. Any process of waking up and re-enchantment must have initation as its first step. Initiation has been a solid fixture of many of my endeavours for a while now.

Ramsey Dukes, who is one of the finest thinkers on magic and the occult, argues that the initiatory experience is the crown of attainment. We don’t get initiated into something and then receive the fruits. The truth is, that the initiation is a confirmation of one’s attainment. When I take my initiation to become a community elder I do not become that elder post-initiation, I take the initiation to recognise that now I am an elder. I like this approach. Initiation is a reward for all the hard work getting there.

It’s been nearly 3 years of hard work, study and practise that has gotten me to this place. Despite my apprehension it’s far too late to turn back. I won’t leave. I can’t leave.

So I’m looking forward to this being over, to see what will unfold in my life next. I’ve had enough of death and ill health the past ten months to last the next ten years. I hope that these are the experiences I’ve needed to have to attain this level of initiation and no more. Enough to birth me into this new world.

There is a knock at the door. It is time. I’m ready to go willingly and blindly into whatever it is that awaits me. All I know is that when I come out the other side I will no longer be the same person as when I entered.

The magic of not having leukaemia (tales from the Department of Ironic Suffering)

‘I’m going to say a whole lot of things to you today,’ my doctor said, ‘but you’re probably only going to hear one or two words of it. That’s quite normal.’

I prepared myself to hear every one of his words. I didn’t want to be normal.

‘So you’re tests have turned up something and they’re consistent with the precursor stage of leukaemia and lymphatic cancer…fnord finarkle…LEUKAEMIA…fnord fnord fnord finarkle…CANCER… finarkle fnord probably nothing but we need to be sure…derp derp derp fnord…BIOPSY…fnord…so you’ll need to go see a haematologist at the Peter Mac. Look, there’s about a 10-15% chance it will develop into leukaemia, which means that there’s an 85% chance it won’t. You’ve got a one-in-three chance of getting cancer anyway, so it could be worse.’

Leukaemia is one of those words one never wants to hear uttered in a doctor’s surgery, not even in jest. I felt suddenly heavy and depressed. The irony was that I was the healthiest I’d ever felt: I was reasonably fit, my diet was good and I had a pretty mature understanding of nutrition and how to take care of myself. The prognosis came out of the blue and a little seed of doubt entered. Had I just been fooling myself: was I actually that healthy? Underneath this veneer of wellness was I being betrayed, slowly undermined by a fifth column of mutated lymphocytes? Was this the aftermath of my wild youth or the lingering product of intergenerational trauma? These are the questions that went through my mind as I left the doctor’s surgery.

I wanted to reject the whole thing. The whole reductive Western medical model sits uneasily with me. It makes diagnoses in isolation. The idea that a bunch of white blood cells had gone rogue didn’t tell the whole picture. It didn’t account for how they got there, what caused them to spread or the impact of diet, emotions, exercise, family history and environment, for example, as catalysts of illness.

There’s nothing like a brush with your own mortality to make you appreciate the finer things in life! The initiate’s face-off with death is a stock-in-trade motif for most indigenous and even Western Hermetic initiation ceremonies. Wake the candidate up from their slumber into the mysteries and experience of the ineffable. I’d experienced several formal initiations in my life, as well as a few more informal enocunters with death. Each one had woken me up to a deeper level of being and some were akin to transformative spiritual experiences.

Last year while on a writing holiday in Bali I got dengue fever and I got it bad. Alone in a foreign country and responsible for myself, I became too sick to comprehend how sick I actually was and it turned into a disaster. I have a stubborn streak so strong you could build a house upon it and, in my sickness, I thought I was okay to manage myself. For several days I convulsed in a febrile mess; sending fevered and disordered messages back to my partner, staggering to the end of the alley and back from my guesthouse for water and periodic attempts to put solid food in my mouth. On the fourth day of the fever I fainted on hard concrete. The doctor urged me to go to hospital and reluctantly I agreed. Returning to my guesthouse however, I found my fever had plateaued and for the first time in four days I was able to put away fresh food. I decided to stick it out. I only had two more days to get through before the fever ended. My thrombocytes were hovering at just above 100, the critical threshold where haemorrhage becomes a danger, and it was a gauntlet I thought I could run.

The next day the fever returned in full force and I was ill to my eyeballs. I booked in for some acupuncture and in one of my greatest ever moments of stupidity, thought that I could walk to the appointment from my guesthouse. In the depths of fever, I walked for forty minutes in the Ubud heat to the clinic. Whatever I had left in me was gone by the time I arrived. The acupuncturist broke my fever and that night I went for dinner, a bowl of pumpkin soup. If I can’t eat this, I thought, I’d call it quits. I couldn’t even swallow a spoonful. I was done.

In hospital my thrombocytes plummeted into haemorrhage territory, down to 78. I was due to fly home in four days to attend the Mankind Project’s men’s initiation weekend. The doctors refused to tell me what was going on, how in danger I was of haemorrhaging or the likelihood of me making my flight home. Being sick in a foreign country is one kind of hell; being sick in hospital in a foreign country where nobody will tell you what’s going on is another kind. I had a permanent drip that I had to remind the nurses to empty or otherwise they wouldn’t come and change it, and the tubes would fill up with blood. My arms were bruised from regular needles and the hospital food was a still from Twin Peaks.

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Thankfully, four days after arriving in hospital my thrombocytes finally crept up above the golden 100. I was allowed to fly home that night, sore, battered, tired and somewhat broken.

But that wasn’t even the worst of the ordeal. What followed was. Coming back to Australia I couldn’t do anything. I missed the MKP weekend and for two months I practically lay on the couch, lethargic, depressed and uninterested in the world around me. If you could label it, it would be chronic fatigue. I’d always been one of those people who’d been a little bit cynical about chronic fatigue. I thought it was a case of mind over matter and that all you needed to do was will yourself to energy, to action. But every time I tried to push through the fatigue I ended up back on my arse again, wondering if it would ever end. If you could have given me the most ironic illness for my life, one that prevented me from busy would be number one. Before getting sick, I was the man who did everything. I always had a million things on the boil. My interests were diverse and competing: I wrote, I studied, I worked, I ran a counselling and shiatsu practise on the side, I did magick, I juggled relationships and family, I danced and a myriad of other things. Try as I might I often struggled to stitch them together and I felt pulled in different directions at once. Now I was stuck on the couch, barely able to cook dinner of an evening.

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View from my hospital bed in Bali

After about two months of trying and failing, I came to the realisation that I had to yield to the inevitable. There was little else I could do execept give up and accept that this was the new order in my life. Anything else was a recipe for enduring frustration. This came as something of an epiphany. Somewhere deep down, I realised that the only way I would get past the fatigue was to submit to it, to accept it and whatever came of it. In Bali, although it took me a few days of hell to get there, surrendering my stubborness to the reality of my situation opened the door to me receiving the treatment I required to survive. At home, surrendering to my inability to do anything began the process of recovery. For me, this was the equivalent of a initiatory or spiritual insight.

Clichéd as it is, what my life needed was a way to stop doing and a way to learn how to cultivate being. Yet it worked. As soon as I surrendered to the post-dengue fatigue it lifted. The way out was through submission. But in doing so my life had changed. My usual strategy of trying to push through to the other side, I realised, was stale and unsustainable. Soon after, I encountered a teacher who directed me how to cultivate presence and direct action through this presence. I learnt the art of allowing things to flow through me, to not try and force change upon the world but to be its agent in a state of flow. To say that this has been a revelatory experience is an understatement. The dengue was hell but it taught me the lesson I needed: to slow the fuck down and stop pushing. I am very grateful for that lesson.

The softest in the world

Surpasses the hardest in the world

What has no substance

Can penetrate what has no opening.

Thereby I know the value of non-action.

The value of teaching without words

And accomplishing without action

Is understood by few in the world.

– Tao Te Jing

The leukaemia prognosis followed on from the dengue, a consequence of the endless series of blood tests that I’ve had since. Dengue fever is not a very nice virus. It wreaks havoc on the body. And here I was staring at a potentially worse fate. I went home and held my love and we talked openly and honestly about it, we shared our deepest fears with each other, as well as our highest aspirations. I find it amazing that something so terrifying and debilitating could yield such depths of vulnerability and tenderness in our relationship. I thought of my family and how much I value them and I thought of my friends. I took a general inventory of my life; establishing what was important and what wasn’t. I realised how important it is to lead a life of value and purpose, that there is nothing worse I could think of than dying unfulfilled. I knew all of this anyway, but in the light of a terrifying illness it became magnified a hundredfold.

The ultimate story is that I don’t have leukaemia. I have a pre-cursor to a mild, non-aggressive form of leukaemia in the same way that a mole is a precuror to a melanoma. Doesn’t necessarily mean it will develop into anything and the odds are strong that it won’t. Nonetheless it’s still leukaemia, which is a scary thing. But leukaemia isn’t even the point of this essay. The value of appreciating our wellness and making the most of our brief years is. As is the depths of suffering it requires to bring us into the deep flow of life. Within every illness is a lesson. And I’m grateful for the lessons this luekaemia scare has taught me.

The irony seems to be that it takes the shadow of the reaper to coerce us into a state of appreciation for life. You hear stories of people with terminal cancer or people who have received a verdict of impending death and how they savour every available moment remaining, how life becomes beautiful, fragile and to treasured. They’re almost Buddha-like in their presence. Why do we leave the love of life to the dying? I find it somewhat sad that we are so complacent in our existences that we cannot truly appreciate the beautiful and fragile gift of life we have; that it requires the scent of death to instil in us this appreciation. Why do we need these initiatory encounters with death to remind us of the preciousness and ephemerality of our existences? Shouldn’t a love and appreciation of life just be part and parcel of being alive and at the centre of consciousness for every living being?

Everyday we are dying, we move one step closer to death, but we don’t celebrate the fact that we’re alive. Not celebrating our aliveness is an insult to the already dead and dying. Life is our birthright but we don’t appreciate it until we lose it. If dengue fever made me slow down, not having leukaemia tells me to smell the roses. So I will celebrate being alive. I will celebrate not having leukaemia, my good health, my sense of wellbeing and the deep flow of the Tao that moves through me. Life is brief. Time to enjoy it!