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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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.

Into the stretch

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

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

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

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Can your granddad do this?

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

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

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

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

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