Infinity and the sacred

Ganges sunrise

The priest stands on the edge of a concrete ghat before the dirty Ganges at dawn. He is naked from the waist up except for the sacred cord that runs over his left shoulder, symbol of the twice-born priestly-caste. He wears a saffron coloured dhoti and across his forehead are drawn three horizontal white lines, traced with ash, the mark of a follower of Shiva. The priest folds his hands in prayer, bends and scoops the water in his hands and drips it across his forehead, intoning his mantras to the sacred river. A few feet away a second devotee lights his butter lamp and pours oil while uttering his own quiet prayers. Over in the neighbouring ghats men, women and children swim in the dawn waters to wash away their karma while at Marnikarnika Ghat, the infamous burning ghat, a constant procession of corpses are carried into the Ganges before their subsequent cremation. In nearly every temple and every shrine in the city people are at their ablutions and ministrations for the rising sun. It’s impossible not to be moved at the fervour, the devotion and, dare I say it, the sanctity, of these morning rituals.

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You can’t travel through India for more than 10 minutes without the words ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ coming up, usually uttered by some backpacker setting new lows in new-age credulity; the term becomes almost meaningless in its ubiquity. On the other hand, there is no denying that there is something striking about India’s rampant and colourful religiosity. Compared to our secular West––lacking in belief and ritual, its celebrations anodyne––India is littered with rites, temples, gods and vibrant festivitie. Idols are commonplace, small shrines are housed in every building and throughout the day, wherever you go, you’re likely to smell incense or hear chanting, bells ringing or see people bowed in prayer. As someone deeply interested in both religion and language usage and abusage it got me to thinking about what it actually means to call something sacred and if there is any truth to the fact that India is a sacred country. Or is it just another banal cliché? I wanted to discern if the sacred was something that had an objective reality or was it perceptual, inherent only in the eye of the beholder?

Dr Peterson I preume?

I’ve been consuming a lot of Jordan B Peterson as I travel. I realise that he is a controversial and polarising figure with two public and sometimes overlapping personas: the erudite scholar of psychology and religion and the staunchly conservative cultural warrior. As a refugee from the culture wars, I have little interest in the second, though I think the former has some very interesting ideas to offer. Whilst this is not an endorsement of his views in toto, I do think we are adult enough to listen to the thoughts of people we may disagree with without being triggered by them. This is an integral aspect of a mature and self-aware society.

In my opinion, Dr Peterson has some great things to say regarding the nature of religion and the sacred, even if I don’t always agree with his entrenched Judeo-Christian perspectives that view humanity as inherently flawed, sinful, and nature as something other, a constant terrifying and existential threat to our lives. But that is a post for another day.

One of Dr Peterson’s core arguments is that we are bound, limited beings who are finite by nature; we are constrained by our physicality, mental capacity and comprehension, not to mention by our finite lifespans. By contrast, the universe we inhabit is infinite in nature: materially, theoretically and in potentia. Our finitude is less than a microscopic drop or speck in our universe’s endlessness. But to exist as limited and finite specks in an incomprehensibly infinite universe cannot do anything but leave a major imprint of existential anxiety upon our psyches. We are surrounded by a cosmos that could engulf us at any moment, which promises to do so when we eventually and inevitably die. And it’s not just our lives that will ultimately be engulfed but every trace and memory of our existence and the existences of those microscopic few who will even remembered that we briefly walked across the stage of existence.

We can barely comprehend the enormity of this state of affairs. Its immensity and scope go beyond anything we can imagine or anything we can physically encompass. At the same point we feel it fucking deeply. We feel it in our guts and in our bones and most of our waking lives are spent staving off that feeling of something lurking at the edges of our consciousness: a kind of existential dread synonymous with Kierkegaard’s anguish or Satre’s ennui.

To give us an idea of how limited and finite our comprehension of the universe is, Dr Peterson uses frame theory as an example. In short, frame theory says that there exist many frames that we are conscious of but an infinite number of frames that remain outside the scope of our consciusness. A frame is “a frame of reference”, a point of perspective. Think of it this way: you go through your days aware of yourself as a cohesive unit. You have thoughts and feelings, you experience hunger, cold and tiredness and you engage with other people and tools during the course of your day. This experience is all mediated through the lens of your conscious personality and sense of self-identity. Yest this is a single perspective, an ego-driven frame. But there are many more possible perspectives than that of your conscious and ego-driven identity. You exist on an atomic level: a bunch of atoms that have come together to make up the being that is you. You exist on a microbial level. Bacteria crawl across your skin eating away the dead flesh and any dirt that covers you, while your stomach is a forest of micro flora and more bacteria. You have glands that regulate your bodily functions all day and night while you have a vast unconscious and perhaps even a higher, spiritual you (if you are that way inclined). In the other direction, there is aframe of reference that sees you as a unit in a small gathering of closely-related bioligical material, a family; a greater mass of people linked by genetic material, a race; or social conditioning, a culture. Zoom the lens in and out as much as you like and you will soon realise that the possible number of frames is literally endless but we are only capable of comprehending an incredibly tiny and, of course, necessarily finite amount. To try and comprehend this infinitude is to descend into Lovecraftian-style madness.

Defining the sacred

It’s this place, this edge where our finiteness meets the infinitude of the universe that we find the sacred, says Peterson. It’s the liminal space between the finite known and the infinitely unknown and it’s a great starting point for a definition. But I don’t think it goes far enough. What is required, I believe, is an embodied sense of this threshold between the two worlds. It’s not enough to merely comprehend this liminal space; rather it has to be experienced, to be deeply felt. The sacred, then, is where the place where we physically feel our finiteness meeting the infinitude of the universe. The reason for this is because what we feel often contradicts and regulalry undermines what we know.

The movement of the earth around the sun is a good example of this. Why is it that even the most scientifically minded among us still refer to “sunrise and sunset” instead of “the earth’s rotation bringing our current global coordinates back into a direct line with the sun”? Nearly five hundred years after Copernicus we might mentally know that the sun does not rise but physically, in our bodies, we feel the sun sinking below the horizon and into the underworld and being reborn each day, a feeling ingrained over six million years of experience. Although science tells us that the earth will complete its orbit, in our bones there is a deep embodied fear that it will not rise again. That it did so the previous day and every day preceding that, in our small and miserable existence, is the only consolation that it may do so tomorrow. So the movements of the sun take on a sacred flavour and, thus, sun adoration rituals have been commonly practised by many cultures around the world and throughout the ages. It’s also a central reason why solar rituals form a central tenet in my own sacred practises. I know conceptually that the earth revolves around the sun and that the sun is not moving across the horizon but that’s not what I feel when I sit on a hill and watch the a spectacular sunset colouring the bush in red and orange hues and filling with a sense of wonder and mystique.

Another example is death. We know rationally that one day we will die, although we spend most of our lives avoiding that thought. Why? It’s an embodied fear, a felt sense of our own finiteness being swallowed and brought to an end by the endless stream of existence. Which is why death has a sacred flavour and honouring death and its sanctity is an important element of our living existence. Death rituals are a sacred part of life. Peterson calls this state a tragedy; the internal knowledge that our own finiteness is dwarfed by the infinity of the universe. Yet it is also exquisitely beautiful, precious and sensual, even. The sacred cannot omit the sensual because the senses are fundamental to feeling the sacred. Which is why sex and death are so inextricably related: the mystery of procreation is creating the finite out of the void and the mystery of death is leaving the finite back to the void. And if you don’t believe that childbirth is a sacred mystery ask any new parent about the sense of awestruck ‘wonder and amazement’ they feel about the human they have made.

Peterson goes on to suggest that honouring the sacred, this edge of our world, where everything falls away into the unknown vastness of life and the universe, is a necessary aspect of existence and a counterpart to the dryness of rational, material life. In this I am reminded of Joseph Campbell’s aphorism that in life we must strive to honour the mystery of ourselves through the mystery of the universe. And the way we honour this is not rationally, because the finite and rational mind cannot comprehend the infinite, but through rite and ritual, prayer and supplication and through sacrifice as these are all modalities that are resonate somatically and in the deep unconscious sea.

The appropriate feeling here is instilling reverence or awe, rare qualities in our modern world. If we stop and think for a minute the world abounds in miracles: robots and AI, space exploration, nanothechnology, the internet, cloning and so on. Yet, we are so used to these wonders that we take it all in our stride. We can barely conceive of how significantly the world has transformed in the past hundred years and it is even more difficult to experience the same sense of awe and reverence for the world and cosmos that was felt by our ancestors. We have become blase and with that has come environmental degradation, disembodiment and dissociation from our animal roots. Yet there is good evidence that feelings such as awe and reverence are beneficial and promote pyschological wellbeing. Awe and reverence imply a certain degree of respect for those things which we don’t understand or that are greater than us in scale. Thus an embedded sense of reverence for our place in nature, for the mysteries of the universe, may act as catalyst for us to protect nature and these very mysteries. When we realise our place in the scheme of things, no matter how insignificant, then we are less likely to meddle in our environment.

So I have to acknowledge that the cliché’s regarding India are true. India really is a sacred country because Hinduism is a religion par excellence for honouring this liminal doorway between the finite and the infinite. There are lingams and yonis in every shrine in every village worshipping that sacred act of creation. There are a plethora of sun temples and moon temples and elaborate rituals regarding how the dead are farewelled. There are celebrations for everything in between. If you are in the thralls of the dead hand of rationalism you could do much worse than immerse yourself in India’s sacredness, throw away all reason and allow the terrifying edges of existence to rear up in your awareness in all their awe-inducing power.

Or you could do 400 micrograms of LSD; it’s tantamount to the same thing.

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At the same time, it’s not necessary to be religious in a traditional sense in order to venerate the sacred in our lives. I like to think that the idea of the sacred is not important from either a secular or theistic perspective, but from a personally pragmatic and psychologically-grounded approach, as a concept that is incorporated into our lives for growth. In practise, this is performed by physically meeting the sense of our own finiteness through symbolic gesture and ritual in whatever meaningful way we can devise.

The concept of the sacred goes hand in hand with the necessity of religion as a personal practise, given that one of the purposes of religion is to create room for us to face the sacred. But as I have written in other posts, this does not entail that you have to subscribe to a mainstream religion, shave off your hair and join the Hare Krishnas or any other cult for that matter. If we take religion in its literal meaning to re-bind, what the sacred asks of us is practical and conscious engagement, not empty participation mystique. Your own rituals and your own belief systems are enough. It’s not what you believe but that you believe in something and you take concrete action to honour and concretise those beliefs and symbolically honour your own dismal finitude in the endless universe.

Into the underworld

I haven’t posted in a while. There’s been a range of factors behind this, some technological or geographical but also psychospiritual.

When I started planning this trip I envisioned a kind of Hero’s Journey structure to frame it. Separation in the first six months, an underworld journey in the second and the last third, Return, although a return of what or whom I didn’t put much thought into. To support this, I’d crammed most of the intensives and workshops into the middle third of the trip (South and Central America) in addition to a few other intensive and immersve experiences. A tarot reading before we left also seemed to indicate that this period would be one of crisis and transformation.

It’s a case of be careful what you wish for.

In Japan my computer stopped charging properly but the pace of travelling was so frenetic that there was little space to take heed of it. By the time we arrived in the US my laptop had died completely and would not charge at all. Simultaneously, my phone had also started playing up and so I decided to do a factory reset on it. Something went wrong when backing up my data, which I didn’t realise at the time. When I did the restore I had lost much of my information including access to chat apps, my sources of connection with people back home. Apple were useless in assisting me fix my computer. There was an issue with the logic board, which meant sending it off to the factory. As I was travelling around they couldn’t pinpoint a location to send it to and so for six weeks I carried an oversized paperweight in my pack.

Adding to this was a slow withdrawal from my old life in Australia. Back home I realised had a definite social identity. I knew who I was with some certainty as well as my place in a well-established community. I had passions, plans for the future, strong social networks and a sense of community. The further I travelled the more abstract all of this felt. I became acutely aware of how our identities, our egos, are socially constructed and the further I went the more I sensed the Self residing underneath (more on this to come). Social media, politics and current affairs seemed increasingly irrelevant to who and where I was in life. The message coming through grew louder: withdraw and sever the strings binding me to my old life. And so I did.

One cannot undertake the Hero’s Journey without honouring the stages and their import. How could I enter an underworld, even of my own making, if I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that which bound me to the old world? In the myth of Orpheus, Orpheus is instructed to walk through the underworld and not look back at Eurydice, who is following behind him. Orpheus cannot help himself and at one stage looks back to her. She is condemned forever to dwell in Hades. The message is clear: when you walk into the underworld you cannot look back. There is only forward.

The past couple of months have been one of disconnection and focusing on the road ahead. Interestingly however, my computer was repaired only once I accepted that severance was necessary and took steps to make it so. The underworld journey has begun. I am loath to post about it while I am still in its belly. My priority at the moment is finishing the next draft of my novel and documenting as much of this journey as I can in my journal with the aim of constructing a longer work. So while I will post here from time to time it will be of intermittent frequency.

Deeper into the underworld, I descend…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.