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.

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.

Religion and re-enchantment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion is:

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World-creation

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

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

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Poetic Terrorism

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

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

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

Ecology

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

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My religion

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

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

Sometimes my religious system is completely contradictory based upon my mood or my desire to avoid falling into fundamentalism. One thing I like about Thelema is that it is left up to the individual to interpret it in anyway that he or she sees fit without recourse to the ideas of anyone else, which is kind of what I’ve argued here. However, I find that this instruction is occasionally undercut but the slavish adherence and adoration of Thelema that I’ve observed here and there. This is participation mystique again. It’s an easy trap to fall into; we all do it in countless ways and religions are funnels for this kind of belief system. However, it becomes more marked when it occurs in a system that is centred upon self-directed gnosis. But then again, who am I to criticise another’s free interpretation of a individualistic doctrine?

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

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