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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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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Radical presence

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold- Yeats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bur still, we must press on…

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

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

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

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

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

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Jejune Institute debrief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be concluded…

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 (the way in which people mindlessly scratch an itch by checking Facebook or phones) 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 sometimes 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.