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. Alternate reality game, strange cult or 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. A few months later I tried to replicate the same ritual in Varanasi, with its maze of streets in the old city.

‘You want hashish, you want opium?’ a gap-toothed bhang-wallah said to me.

‘All of it.’

‘I make you something special.’ He grinned with a conspiratorial wink.

That something special left me passed out on a squalid mattress in a hot room for ten hours, writhing like Martin Sheen in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. So much for that adventure…

My point is that 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 approach madness without going mad 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. Every time we go through an initiation or rite of passage we hand over our mental and physical integrity. I may touch on this in future posts. Ultimately, however we are responsible for the re-enchantment of our own world and this is something which Neurocam, the Jejune Institute or anything external can provide.

So let your 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…

Neurocam and the theatre of re-enchantment (Part 1)

On December 2004 the Saturday Age ran a story on its front page that would have profound consequences for my life. The story (worth a read if only for the quaint use of the term web logger) was an investigation into a strange organisation by the name of Neurocam. Neurocam had announced itself to the world via a billboard on Alexandra Parade and a website. Its modus operandi appeared to be  sending masked operatives of clandestine missions for purposes unknown. Was it a cult, an art experiment or something even more sinister? No one seemed to know but whatever it was, to me it sounded awesome!

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The infamous billboard

Curious, not to mention a little apprehensive, I decided I would investigate Neurocam further and possibly even join. I stuffed the newspaper article in my top desk draw and promptly forgot about it. Two months later, while clearing out the black whole that is my top desk draw, I rediscovered the article, recalled my initial curiosity and subsequently got online and sent an email to Neurocam applying to join. Almost immediately I received an email:

Dear Applicant

Thank you for expressing interest in Neurocam.

Your application has been forwarded to a designated officer within the Human Resources Security Division so that our organization can further evaluate your suitability for recruitment.

In the interest of facilitating an expedient assessment, the Human Resources Security Division is currently implementing a series of background checks.

While waiting for a response I began researching what information I could discover in the public sphere regarding this enigma. What I found was an entire blogging community of Neurocam operatives, with codenames names like Tript, American Guy, Teigan, Lady J and Xade. And so my journey down the rabbit hole began.

The day after sending the email I was walking down my street, on my way home from work. At the time I lived on one of the busiest arterials leading out of Melbourne’s CBD. Out of the corner my eye I saw a guy making a beeline for me from across the road, weaving his way through six lanes of afternoon peak hour traffic directly towards me. He was a big guy, unshaven, sweaty and somewhat dishevelled and he looked at me with what I thought was recognition.

‘Excuse me?’ he said, stepping right into my path. ‘Do you have the time?’

‘Um, sure. Around four-thirty.’

‘Thanks,’ he puffed. With that he turned and crossed back across the road, through the traffic and back on his way.

I was nonplussed. Was this some kind of test and was this random stranger an agent of Neurocam? As part of the Application process I’d had to provide my address and personal details, so it wasn’t out of the question. Suddenly I found myself thrust into a world of countless possibility, infused with subtle paranoia and profound numinosity. Anyone could be an agent of Neurocam; what strange tests awaited me?

A few days later I was formally confirmed as an operative with the self-selected moniker of Rorschach. Although I’d been experiencing something of a prolonged identity crisis in my life at the time, in retrospect choosing a mentally unstable, neo-fascist vigilante as my codename may not have been the most inspired choice. Nor perhaps was joining a shadowy covert-ops organisation as a way of resolving that identity crisis. But live and learn…

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Uh wot?

My first mission was to find and photograph a portal (I’m looking at you, JK), which lead me scurrying through city alleyways not knowing the full purpose or reason for what I was doing. I had a sense of just making it up as I went along, half using vague instructions and the rest with my imagination. I found a lovely red door in Guildford Lane, which could lead to nowhere else but to mystery. I took a photo of it and reported back with a commendation that I had done well. At the same time I delved deeper into the blogging community, starting a blog of my own that is long defunct and making a few online connections along the way.

What had I gotten myself into? Within the blogging community there was endless speculation but no real consensus about Neurocam. A consistent figure in it all was the involvement of Melbourne artist Robin Hely and the most likely explanation was that Neurocam was some kind of interactive art project. But nobody was certain about anything. Adding to the confusion there were also those that delighted in the obfuscation, adding their own muck to the mix through misdirection and barefaced lying. As Melbourne artist, Jess Kilby wrote, regarding her experience of Neurocam: “Occasionally a veil would drop and some sort of truth would seem to be revealed, but behind one veil there always seemed to be another.” Veils and lies and mysteries abounded. Everything could be read in muiltiple ways and nothing was as it seemed.

Soon after Neurocam appeared to undergo some kind of behind the scenes coup and to all extents was finished. After my initial search for portals I received no more missions. The organisation’s halcyon period was in the month after the initial Age article, when it attracted hordes of thrill seekers and curious minds. The black hole in my top desk drawer meant that I was a little late to the party.

The coup played out and was disseminated through the mouthpieces of selected bloggers within the community. Instead of being part of a giant mystery us operatives were now witnesses to an opaque soap opera and whatever sense of possibility, meaning and numinosity vanished with it. That which had made Neurocam so interesting had gone. As a community we were left to our own devices and speculations but we were no longer engaged in any cohesive movement. It was interesting and it was fun but the community lacked the transporting power that Neurocam had for us. People began to drift away from boredom of lack of fulfilment.

This wasn’t the end of the story, however. I’d happened to mention my involvement in Neurocam to a work colleague and it transpired that not only was she familiar with Neurocam, she knew two operatives, the bloggers Johanna and Xade. From there I was to encounter more operatives in the meat world and some of these were to become close friends. And more. I did mention that Neurocam would have profound consequences for my life and several years later I would end up marrying one of those operatives, Lady J. We’re no longer married but still remain good friends. Whatever else Neurocam may or may not have been at the very least it created a community and that community would leave a lasting impression on my life. Despite its failings, which are many, there is that.

To be continued…

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!

Into the stretch

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Kit Laughlin’s ‘Into the Stretch’ workshop. After two days of stretching and limbering, not to mention some bloody painful releases, my entire body felt looser, lighter and incredibly alive!

Kit is a movement specialist, athlete, martial artist and shiatsu therapist and also the teacher of some of my favourite writers on movement and movement systems. He’s a softly-spoken, spry sixty-four year old who has built a complete system of movement and stretching designed to enliven and re-awaken the body. Kit labels the effects of this system re-patterning.

In daily life we use our bodies in very limited ways. We’re creatures of habit, mostly sedentary and with our natural ways of movement modified by aids such as chairs, shoes and other environmental features. We rarely use our muscles and fibres to their full extent and often employ them in ways that they were not designed for, which causes other muscle groups to step in to compensate, leading to bodily imbalance. A prime example is the squat. The squat is a natural resting position for human beings, yet how many Westerners can sit in a squat for lengthy periods? We spend all days sitting in chairs, probably in front of desks, which causes the hip flexors to tighten because of their constant flexion, and the gluteal muscles to atrophy and not fire when required. This often leads to some kind of injury, compounded by over compensating muscle mechanisms. Either way, the body’s ability to move in functional ways contracts even further.

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Can your granddad do this?

Because the body tends towards homeostasis, if an imbalanced pattern remains long enough then this will become the new normal, the new pattern. The effort required to return to the natural pattern is greater than the effort required to preserve an imbalanced one. The process of stretch therapy is to correct these imbalanced patterns by awakening dormant muscles, firing them in ways that they were designed for, taking the load off compensatory muscles and allowing space for the full range of movement that our bodies were designed for. Our bodies were made to move: just watch children for a little while and that becomes obvious. They wriggle, squirm, jump about and cannot stay still. As adults we somehow lose that as we disenchant ourselves.

Stretch therapy is more than just physical exercise though. Along with physical repatterning is perceptual repatterning. We have a felt awareness of ourselves as physical beings. Within is a conceptual and a perceptual map of our own bodies that includes its abilities, strength, limitations and its boundaries. The word for this internal sense is interroception. Interroception is the awareness of how we are in ourselves and this awareness forms the topography and borders of our body map. Interroception comes naturally to all of us, however in our Western society that prizes mind over body, it is a devalued awareness and becomes diminished. Throw in the effects of chronic pain, injury or trauma (for people who’ve experienced physical or sexual abuse the body can be a very unpleasant place to inhabit) and interroception may completely disappear. As a counsellor, one of the main things I do is help people reclaim an awareness of their own bodies. In fact it’s a prerequisite to, and in integral part of, any healing process. You would be surprised at how many people live their lives from the neck up. Reclaiming interroception is as much an art as it is a skill. And for some it is also an arduous process of healing.

One of the fundamental principles of stretch therapy is to approach the body like a wild beast: go slow, no sudden movements and no loud noises. Re-patterning requires slowness. Feeling requires slowness. Swing your arm out quickly to your side. Now do it again more slowly. Notice the awareness of muscles and movement in the second attempt that was absent in the first. Now extend this awareness to your entire body. Find the horizons of this awareness and then pass beyond them through slow and purposeful stretching. This is re-patterning in action.

A teacher of mine, Arion Light, calls this ‘coming home’. Coming home to yourself. All of you is already there; there’s nothing missing, no deficiency to make up, nowhere to go, nothing to attain. You are complete as you are. But we live our lives so caught up in our thoughts and in the tumble of our surface personality that we lose sight of ourselves and our ability to interrocept. Arion’s process is to bring the awareness back to the breath and just observe what’s there. When you bring your awareness back to yourself and you will grok this. It’s a different route to Kit’s but the end goal is the same. As with re-patterning, coming home extends the boundaries of our body maps. It’s all there, latent, waiting to be explored and awoken.

The mystic Gurdjieff once said that ‘we are sleepwalking our way through life.’ Being alive is easy; feeling alive is hard work and maintaining that aliveness against the forces of habit and inertia is even harder work. Yet it’s rewarding work. We expand the horizons of our physical, embodied awareness, we move with comfort and ease and we surprise ourselves with our own strength and abilities. We are designed to live with a deeply embodied sense of our own being and awareness of our self. However for the most part we choose not to. I don’t proclaim to be advanced at this: it’s an ongoing exploration as I learn more about myself and my being. Some days I am limited by chronic shoulder and neck pain and feel every one of my forty-one years; other days I am as limber and awake as a teenager. But to be awake in this world we must first feel truly alive. Humans are far more powerful than we give ourselves credit for yet we live in such disempowered ways. It’s only now that we’re starting to glean the full extent of our capabilities. And the first step is to reawaken our bodies.

Religion and re-enchantment

One of the first steps in re-enchantment is to become religious. This is something of a controversial view, so I better define exactly what I mean.

When I refer to religion, I don’t mean belief in some gaseous invertebrate floating in space that will smite you if you don’t believe in Him. I’m also not referring to the practice of turning up at a steepled church every Sunday to mouth a few empty paeans to this same invertebrate, from fear that you might end up somewhere hot and reeking of brimstone for eternity when you die. That’s not religion, it’s just attempting to connect with something bigger than yourself so you don’t get swamped whenever you contemplate your own insignificance in the universe.  You don’t even need a church for that; that sense of belonging is obtainable from your football club, your political affiliation or through your subculture. My homeboy, Carl Jung, dubbed this participation mystique.

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It’s not God’s fault. He’s just been going through a lot lately.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’m also not talking about some anaemic new age Source of Light/Love/Unity that can’t be defined or pinned down but gives you a warm uplifting feeling like it’s lab-grade spiritual prozac.

I’m using the word in a very literal sense. The word itself, ‘religion’ comes from the same Latin root as ligature: ligare. Re-ligare: to bind again. Interestingly, the word religion is also cognate with the words rely and liable and is antonymous with negligent. Read into that what you will.

By religion, I mean a personal relationship with the world that is expressed through symbol. In practise, religion is a symbol system built through myth, prayer, ritual and archetype. In this definition, religion represents an individual’s relationship with their own universe. There cannot be one True Religion: in fact there are 7.5 billion true religions! I’m also not saying that there shouldn’t be Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or any other common belief system, but rather that your Christianity should look different from mine and from everybody else’s. It’s natural that there will be some overlap as we inhabit a world where we share common symbols and mythologies. However, my religion is pertinent to me and me only. As is yours.

Religion is:

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World-creation

Think about it: the universe is vast beyond comprehension. It makes no inherent sense to the rational mind because it cannot be apprehended rationally. I’m not saying that there isn’t an appearance of order; that is different to rationality. Rationality is a human construct and the universe we inhabit is beyond rationality. Therefore we need to apprehend it in an irrational way through symbols like myth, prayer and archetype, which are all manifestations of our irrational unconscious. Religion is a rational response to living in an irrational universe

To make sense of this senselessness, to survive without massive ego loss, one needs to create a symbol system that is personally relevant and meaningful. You could piggy back onto someone else’s, but as I’ve described above that’s not religion. The truly religious person is drawing upon their own experience, their own relationship with the world and their own understanding of it to construct something that is a unique and personal expression. It doesn’t have to be coherent or consistent, just so long as it makes sense and gives meaning to them. Religion empowers you to make your own meaning of the world and not be suckered into someone else’s.

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Poetic Terrorism

In an age of mass-produced culture, eschewing participation mystique and creating your own individual religion is an act of subversion. Participation mystique is a complete abdication of your responsibility to create your own meaning in the world. It’s much more convenient for those with control that you adhere to the religions you’ve been culturally conditioned to, rather than forge your own way. By using their symbol structures you open yourself more readily to control and manipulation.

With your own personal religion, institutional dogma and hierarchies cannot control your belief systems as easily as they can when they’re telling you what to believe and how. In an indiviualistic culture that emphasises shallow cultural role models as a means of dumbing down the population this is almost an imperative. Make your own religion, be your own god!

Finally, it’s poetic because religion is much an aesthetic position as it is a meaning-making one. Religion is ultimately a creative expression of your worldview.

Ecology

Binding yourself to the universe, becoming more attenuated to the world in which you live draws you into a closer relationship with it. Cause and effect become more clear, as does systemic awareness. Environmental awareness begins with knowledge of your place in the ecosystem and a religous practice turbocharges this. That is ecology.

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My religion

It’s taken me many years to get to this frame of thinking. I’ve been fascinated by religion since I was young, but grew up an atheist and deep down consider myself agnostic. I have conversed with a god but definitely don’t believe in “God” as a hoary dude or any other thing, although I find some of the gnostic belief systems quite appealing. I’ve long been taken with Grant Morrison’s take on our own divinity, which is essentially a form of gnosticism.

My personal religion is very much a work in progress: a hodgepodge of Thelema, animism, pop Buddhism & Hinduism, Jungian psychology and shamanistic practice. I love mythology, I pray, I’m a massive fan of Liber Resh as a daily practise, I like talking to inaminate things, I carry several of my ancestors as personal allies and I have several other ritual tricks in my kit bag.

Sometimes my religious system is completely contradictory based upon my mood or my desire to avoid falling into fundamentalism. One thing I like about Thelema is that it is left up to the individual to interpret it in anyway that he sees fit without recourse to the ideas of anyone else, which is kind of what I’ve argued here. However, I find that this often feels undercut but the slavish adherence and adoration of Crowley that I’ve witnessed among some of his followers. Participation mystique again. It’s an easy trap to fall into; we all do it in countless ways. Waking up is bloody hard to do!

To wrap up, the point of this essay is that it isn’t what you believe or which entity you believe in or even how you go about doing it. It’s just that you believe in something, no matter how ridiculous, nonsensical or illogical. It’s that you have some kind of symbolic practise and framework that binds you to this world and that you take steps to maintain it.  Finally and most importantly, whatever you  believe please don’t force it upon anyone else. Religion is a private conversation between you and your universe. Enjoy it: it’s for you only!

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