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.

***

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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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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The Re-Enchantment Project

Why re-enchantment?

If you hadn’t noticed, the world is in a pretty messed up state right now. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are bleaching, species are dying out at unprecedented rates, global temperatures are getting warmer and once in a century weather events are becoming more and more commonplace. Societally, the Western middle class has been hollowed out as the gap between rich and poor widens. The years of peace and prosperity enjoyed by most of the world, and the small gains made by the rest, seem to be evaporating as countries recede into pre-World War One models of isolation and nationalism. For the first time in many years there is a distinct and palpable sense of war in the offing. There are rising tides of xenophobia, intolerance and retreat towards insular, monocultural values.

Capitalism has run its course and people are waking up to the fact that unfettered neo-liberalism has reduced everything in the world, including its inhabitants, into a commodity that can be exploited for the benefit of a few. Our democratic institutions have been hijacked by these self-same neoliberal captains, an elite oligarchy who have gamed the system for their own benefit, who put forward their pet two-bob populists to distract from the real issues affecting the world, while the world’s major religions have been reduced to dogmatic and superstitious slumbers. It feels intractable and as a society, it seems like we lack any relevant or nuanced answers to resolve it.

If all this sounds like a pretty bleak picture, that’s because it is. However, there are also some pretty incredible things happening. Change is happening, but from the ground up.

Communities have realised that solutions will not come from above and are attempting to resolve the world’s problems at a horizontal rather than hierarchical level. Renewable power and storage is taking off at unprecedented rates. Kids riffing from the high-calibre worlds of extreme sports, martial arts and deep meditation are hacking the body and the nervous system to uncover a richness of latent power and ability that humans have only ever dreamt about. We are becoming smarter, stronger and more globally consciousness. AI may be just around the corner. Humanity is on the verge of a massive step in its evolution.

They say that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. I’m not sure that we’ve hit that point yet and have a feeling that things will get a lot worse before they get better. But dawn is there, not far away. It will come.

What is re-enchantment?

The blog’s title comes from Morris Berman’s book The Re-enchantment of the World. It’s an awesome book and highly recommended, one of the forerunners of the Deep Ecology movement. The basic premise is that the Age of Reason and the analytic mind have destroyed our integration with our environment. In the past we considered ourselves part of the world we live in, but with the rise of the scientific mindset we have detached ourselves and rendered the world ‘other’. The animist and spiritualist traditions have been discarded and tarred as superstitions. The lingering magic of existence has been replaced by barren logic, precipitating much of the ecological and societal collapses of the last hundred years. Berman calls for a revival of embedded holistic thinking, to re-enchant the world again.

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Chaos always finds its way in

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not anti-reason or scientific progress. The Age of Reason was a very good and necessary thing for humanity to get us out of the Middle Ages and initiate the centuries of accelerating development and prosperity we’ve enjoyed since the Enlightenment and Industrial Ages and up until now. But in promulgating the Age of Reason we threw out the baby with the bathwater. We discarded many old practises as ‘superstitious’ or ‘primitive’. Think of things like the demotion of the midwife in childbirth, the importance of crop rotation, biodiversity and fallow ground in our farming, initiatory practises for young boys and girls and the importance of community in mental health. I’m not trying to suggest that the Middle Ages and prior were idyllic times when humanity lived in perfect harmony with the planet. They weren’t. They were dirty, violent, ignorant and full of disease. However, in discarding the ‘old ways’ in pursuit of progress we haven’t stopped to consider those practises and ideas that might still retain some value for our communities and ourselves.

Rationality is the dominant mindset of our age and has been since Descartes. The mind is hailed as supreme above all else and our bodies are viewed as vehicles to get our brains from point-A to point-B. But there are other ways of thinking, beyond the rational. Magical thinking (or sympathetic magic) is another way of thinking that says thing X can influence thing Y even if there is no apparent connection. If I burn a pyre to the goddess of fertility at the spring equinox then I will have a good harvest this year. Magical thinking sees that if Saturn happens to be travelling through the star sign I was born under then I might be in for a very hard time soon. Magical thinking does not say that my pyre will propitiate the goddess of fertility, but it acknowledges a connection. It looks at correlations rather than causes. It’s not a substitute for rational thinking, it’s just a different way of looking at the world. I wouldn’t use a scientific and rational mindset to understand the meaning behind Picasso’s Guernica, for example, nor would I use art theory to try and determine the molecular weight of a hydrogen atom. Everything has its place and use, magical thinking included. It’s not concerned with truth conditions but whether a thing works or not in practise. It’s all about the result. If it works, despite all logic and evidence to the contrary, then it works.

The funny thing about magical thinking though, the more you use it the higher those correlations stack up. And the more correlations the more connected everything seems. And the more connected everything seems the more you notice the synchronicities between things. And the more you notice the synchronicities…well shit just starts getting weird. The world is magic, enchanted. Voila!

Incidentally, the whole ‘I think therefore I am thing’, has been fundamentally swept into the garbage bin of the Western philosophical canon. Bodies are not vehicles for the minds. The Phenomenologists, led by such thinkers as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, have shown how we experience the world first in our bodies before information is even conveyed to the mind. So you might almost say that ‘I feel therefore I am’.

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So what then?

The point of this blog is to document my experiments in re-enchantment; in myself (body, mind and any non-corporeal bits) and the world I inhabit, through movement, meditation, magical practise, art, story and whatever else I get up to. It’s a work in progress; I come from a strongly rational upbringing and changing my worldview (weltanschuung in German, such an awesome word!) has been a process of unlearning and re-learning. But that also makes it fun. It’s a game! Incidentally, if you’re interested in re-enchantment, watch The Game. Great movie and details a different but equally valid approach to re-enchantment.

With my rational mindset, I also like to see if I can find a logical or science-based explanation that supports what I’m doing and if I can back anything up with data, I will.

As I go along, I may include interviews with fellow re-enchanters, videos and other pieces. Nobody has a monopoly on re-enchantment; it’s an individual process, but hopefully it might inspire others to join the journey.

What makes me qualified?

Nothing, except for being human.

I do have a little experience in the area, however. I’ve been a practising magician for nearly twenty years (although a bit of hedge wizard, to be honest); it’s only in the last few years I’ve really started delving deeper. I’m also a shiatsu therapist, personal counsellor with an interest in family and ancestral ecologies, armchair philosopher, avid fan of dystopian cyberpunk, a tormented football fan and currently engaged to the one of the most wonderful and gorgeous individuals on the planet. I love being in nature and have a large and convoluted family tree, of which I am the oldest sibling in my generation. I can deadlift my own body weight and have a yearning desire to hop into an MMA ring, even though I haven’t thrown a punch in anger in nearly 30 years. Coffee is my last remaining addiction of any substance (pardon the pun) and I am always amenable to gifts of brunch.