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Imaginal Reality

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Our world is a far wilder, weirder and more mysterious place than we ever admit, yet the magic we perform every day hides beneath the countless explanations we foist onto life. In the face of these convincing yet empty explanations, we displace our hunger for a sense of the magical onto other goals, addictions, and distractions. Left at odds with the very sublimity that animates our every moment, we have turned magic into an exception, a collection of superstitions, a historical backwater, and a cinematic spectacle, rather than the very fabric of life as lived. This book is about recovering the imagination of magic and the magic of imagination.This, the first of two volumes, introduces the landscape of the imaginal and the existential voids. Through illustrative stories and self-assessment exercises, this book brings the often-obscure language of existentialism, esotericism, and imaginal psychology to life.

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0: A Sort of Rock Bottom: An Opening Image

ePub

The rite is over.

Various temple members mill about, wine in hand, making their wittiest conversation. Many firt, others posture, some watch. An overly exuberant laugh echoes from the other end of the room. Experimental music — something like the sound of a garbage truck picking up a dumpster behind a burning dance club — echoes of the hardwoods and high ceilings from a well-used stereo. The two modest rented rooms that make up this meeting place rest on the second foor of a late-Victorian ofce building near a bustling commercial street.

I chuckle as I look up to see the smoke detectors once again covered in plastic grocery bags, although the incense is rarely thick. Classic, I refect, although we may invoke the gods, these necessary little compromises remind us of our more humble context.

I usually enjoy the afterglow of these events, especially if the ritualists have done the ceremony well. Occasionally lines may be blundered, props go fying, and ‘Yakety Sax’ from the Benny Hill soundtrack would provide the perfect complement; but most of the time, the necessary gravitas carries the rite.

 

1: Introduction to Volume One: Te Book as Sigil

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From our birth, and even before, our lives are made of rituals: Habits, superstitions, routines, celebrations, rites of passage, initiations, compulsions, procedures, recipes, protocols, obligations, traditions, algorithms. So too are our lives thick with myth: Legends, family lore, explanations, histories, diagrams, theories, guesses, charts, memoires, as well as the stories of the births of worlds, species, religions, civilizations, nations, and heroes that are the fbers of our many cultures. Soaked in the intoxicants of our desires, hopes, expectations, predictions, and fears, our lives are grand works of magical fiction.

This work is an effort to recapture what is already and has always been right here, right now: the imagery from which we make our lives.

Let’s start with a metaphor from the imagination of magic. The book you hold in your hands is a magically charged symbol, a sigil, an ensigilization: an artifact of a life process and the product of a desire to effect change. Change is, after all, what magic is all about — changing expectations, changing people, changing reality itself. Thus, this work is a sort of Janus gaze: simultaneously a retrospective summation-so-far of my life in-and-of magic, as well as a foreword looking intentional vector.

 

2: Mere-ness and Magic: An Informing Image

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Seattle in the Summer, once the rain temporarily retreats, is pretty hard to beat. Before me unfolds an image so typical of this city as to be a cliché: iron bistro tables with mosaic tops, a brick plaza, the smell of roasting espresso beans, and two overly-artsy men debating the fner points of a genre of literature.

I am one of those two men. The other is a publisher of esoteric literature — call him Frater Kiri. He has just fnished the release of the first English translation of a 1000-year-old grimoire. He is justly pleased and lets his broad and mischievous smile overtake his face at my compliments.

‘I guess I’m just blown away by the psychological insight of these works,’ I say, speaking of several of the grimoires we have been discussing.

I cite examples of a polycentric vision of identity, the need to channel demonic-libidinal forces toward our will, and the image of the great magical circle as more of a representation of centering balance than boundary protection.

Kiri’s smile fades.

 

3: A First Go at the Central Idea: Moving Back to the Moment

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So, you know now that this book is a sort of fractal whose fundamental imprint is ‘magic’ in the many ways in which people use this term. This fractal replicates on the smallest level and grows but keeps making this same pattern — no really, this is magic too, your life, your relationships, your ideologies, your culture, and so forth. This book is about magic, came about through a magical process, is written by someone who claims to be a magician, addresses magicians, but then claims that everyone is a magician.

I need to state all of this once again because many readers may lose sight of this fractal. In this chapter, I am going to introduce the basic existential-phenomenological foundation of this work. To o many people who call themselves magicians are busy playing the stage magician’s trick of distraction and misdirection, except they play it on themselves. Trough various types of belief-engineering, magicians dive into their psychotheocosmologies, their paradigms, their ‘workings’ but lose sight of the play. They forget the most basic childhood lesson: that it isn’t any fun anymore if you forget it is a game. The same can be said, of course, about most people who ‘grow up.’

 

4: Application 1: Meditation

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One of the most common exercises in nearly any esoteric, mystical, magical, or occult discipline is the ability to supposedly ‘clear your mind.’ This practice is the cornerstone of many meditative regimens and begins most courses of introductory work for initiatory journeys. For this first exercise:

1) Begin by trying to describe your approach to meditation and visualization.

2) Ten, catalog what work you actually do on a daily or weekly basis. Include in this list the various pathworkings, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, induced hypnagogic states, and breathwork you may do.

3)  Finally, assess if this is where you want your meditative practices to be.

My struggle with most Western approaches to meditation has always been that it receives scant notice after you seemingly check of the box on your magical résumé — ‘Yup, I can quiet my mind…’ — as though it is a threshold you cross once and for all. Ten you usually move on to visualizing overly formulaic images based on some author’s own neuroses. These prescribed images, which quickly begin to appear spontaneously in the devoted practitioner’s dreams, day and night, usually trample on any hint of spontaneity, authenticity, or growth into which you might have been tapping with your meditative work.

 

5: Mala: Images of Sex, Death, and Letting Go

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The day has stacked up with tasks: phone calls, a heap of papers to grade, and an appointment with a student in half an hour. I realize my eyes are bugged out as I push into my ofce, nearly slipping on two papers tucked surreptitiously under my door.

‘One thing at a time,’ I mutter futilely as I lean over to pick up the papers and drop three more items. I swear and feel a tension building behind my eyes. Kneeling, I shufe the papers into their respective piles, transfer them to a table, and sit at my desk. I stare at my task list scribbled on a sheet of scrap paper. After ten or ffteen seconds, I realize I am not even really reading the words.

I stop. I turn my chair around to face a window. Lifting the chain of wooden beads and red thread from around my neck, I push out an exaggerated exhale. I loop the mala around my hands, holding the wrinkled surface of the guru bead tightly as I draw in a deep breath. As I release the breath, the first mantra swirls through my head.

Cunning be the Morrigan, Mother of us all. Blessed be Her coming and Her going. May I be ever-vigilant to Her presence.

 

6: Te Structure of the Moment: A Sidelong Glance at the Voids

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Now we finally come to the eight voids. This brief chapter ofers a first glimpse of the fundamental, unalterable foundation of life as lived. One of the key misunderstandings about existentialism is that, given its name, people assume that these Galois-smoking philosophers actually defined ‘being.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Existentialism aims to unblinkingly describe the human condition — a condition rife with unanswerable questions. Heidegger in particular notes that humans are those posed with these questions and that this very questioning — and all too often inappropriately answering — defines our existence. Thus, the voids listed below are the canvases upon which we create our lives. These voids remind us, for instance, that indeed we almost always function with something like an ‘identity,’ but these various confgurations of self-defnition are transitory and contingent. Trough an open and sincere reverence for their primacy, these voids can free us to let go of our strangle hold on false-certainties through the mystical process of liberation; but they also provide us with the means by which we may change and engineer our lives, our realities. To say it more clearly, these open-ended questions enable us to weave the magic of our lives rather than bludgeon infexible rules of material reality into submission. These voids define the imaginal space in which magic happens.

 

7: Pseudo-Neo-Gnostic-Anti-Teist-Anarcho-Romanticism: An Image Tat Made Sense at the Time

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The walls and ceiling of the dorm room display a riot of tempera paint and crayon creations. Cosmic wombs, serpents, and tangles of interlaced scribbles, mottos, and quotes play tricks of perspective in the golden glow of the candles and dim lamps. The soundtrack varies from Orf’s Carmina Burana to Nine Inch Nails to the Violent Femmes to that new band, Nirvana. In short, a flmmaker couldn’t do a better job of establishing an early 1990’s college campus unless somebody — oh wait, someone did just furtively light a joint.

The initial wave of partiers leaves around midnight and our numbers thin to four or fve. We shred a copy of the Communist Manifesto to wallpaper over parts of our postmodern cave paintings in preparation for room inspections in a day or two. I make sure whole pages come together to form a peace symbol. Others chuckle and somehow convey a sense of irony. The purple velveteen sound of Mazzy Star’s halcyon lilt oozes from the speakers, creating a strange sonic contact high.

 

8: Immediacy: Te First Void

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This first void, of immediacy, reminds us that all occurrences, encounters, perceptions, futures, pasts, and in fact any sense experience happens right now. Thus, this enigma is likely the best place to start on our tour of the eight voids. What has become a New Age chestnut grown out of Ram Dass’s inspired writings to Be Here Now — is, in fact, inescapable. But, for Ram Dass to title his book Wake Up to the Fact Tat You Can’t Be Anywhere but Here; Moreover ‘Now’ is the Only Time No Matter What You Do just would not have sold as well.

Perhaps speaking of ‘immediacy’ as a void seems strange. After all, we often speak of ‘this very moment,’ and simultaneously point down to the ground as if to show that ‘now’ is ‘right here.’ Nevertheless, we don’t need to think too hard to realize that ‘now’ is not really a place, per se. As we shall see, time is quite an abstraction, and various types of abstractions tend to become quite muddled with each other. Therefore, I challenge you to define what exactly we mean when we say, ‘now.’ Would we say, ‘Not the past?’ ‘Not the future?’ ‘This instant?’ All of the words we might use to define it prove to be rather transitory — gone the instant we use them.

 

9: Application 2: What Are You Doing Right Now?

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This next exercise asks that you make a shift in awareness. This new perspective may lead you to make different choices, but, unto itself, this exercise merely asks that you become aware of what you are doing, as best as you can tell. Other exercises will build on and help this awareness to become habitual and grow — extending deeper into the many activities of which we are unaware and into parts of our life we never thought to examine.

The exercise is to simply and honestly ask yourself, ‘what am I doing right now?’

Ethics is the Highest form of Magic. Unfortunately, ‘ethics’ has now become a shufed-aside, stodgy term reserved for, perhaps, business schools, or other professional pursuits. Speaking of individuals and ethics seems detached. Maybe we talk about our personal ethics in a philosophy class, but, on a day-to-day basis, how many of us genuinely think about ‘ethics’?

Speaking of ‘ethics’ often leads us to think about ‘morals’ and ‘principles.’ (Tink of Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show when you say ‘PRINciples!’) I think this characterization is a mistake. Not that I don’t think the discussion can get to such terms, but I don’t think the discussion begins there.

 

10: Undiferentiation: Te Second Void

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Undiferentiation is a painfully clinical term for another New Age favorite. Sitar music droning in the background, we are supposed to realize that you are me and I am you. This is said to be incredibly reassuring, lovey, and mind-blowing. The self-hypnosis or guided imagery session narrated by that well-dressed East Indian man neglects to mention that such a realization is perfectly obvious to anyone who has suffered from psychosis — which is no picnic and is usually not terribly ‘lovey.’

‘Self’ and ‘other’ (i.e., identity and alterity) are mutually dependent and unavoidable fictions. In any given moment, each of us needs to have some sector of our experiences that we segregate of to be ‘me’ as well as some speculations about the other person — ‘not-me’ — in the scene. This is good, healthy, and useful. The secret to this fiction lies in exactly how we take up this ubiquitous division of experience. We too often rigidly and pedantically confine the shifting continuums of phenomena into our limited sense of self — ‘I know who I am!’ This infexibility reduces the multiple vectors of change and polycentric localizations of experience into an untenable, brittle insanity. The problem is not so much having an identity per se, but having the expectation that our identities neither shift nor change. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, the many defenses against the indeterminacy of ‘self’ — against undiferentiation — sell pretty well. Hence, a far more infexible vision of both self and other is likely to stay on the shelves for a while. It sells well because the alternative, in its fullness, is initially unbearable.

 

11: Mystery and Imagination 117

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Before we move on to an exercise about our many selves, I want to preface it with a brief discussion about mystery and ritual, since, as we will see, the rituals around what many different traditions call ‘the Greater Mysteries’ intimately link to transformations of identity. These transformations occur on the high seas of undifferentiation about which we just spoke.

As I hope is obvious by this point, I am a big fan of mystery. ‘Mystery,’ however, can mean many different things. In the world of initiatory organizations, I find three progressive perspectives emerge. For our purposes, I will call these levels: ‘puzzles and secrets’; ‘insights’; and ‘the inefable.’ Often, these definitions become interlaced and we must see through one mystery to engage a deeper one.

The idea of piercing into the basic secrets of life informs the imagination of magic throughout history and around the globe. The etymology of the very names for workers of magic points us in this direction. A ‘sorcerer’ sees the workings of ‘fate.’ Taumaturgy deals not only in the ‘miraculous and wonderful’ but also in the ‘wonder’ at the heart of the mysteries. Even the word ‘magic’ speaks equally to the sublime in ‘art’ as much as piercing the illusions of ‘artifce.’ So too do we place our imagination of magicians in frontiers, forests, edges of communities, and in the tenebrous limits of our knowing. The idea of magic demands that we fundamentally reassess how we know and, thus, calls us from our comfortable villages to the wilds of the unknown — the mysteries that surround and sustain our lives.

 

12: Application 3: Stories about Your Selves

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For this next experiment, put aside the bigger questions of the last chapter and simply consider the stories you tell in the course of a normal day. When people ask you to tell them a little bit about yourself, what do you say? For many people, an average week is full of questions, such as, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘What do you do for fun?’

The answers can be difficult to produce when you are alone since they happen in a reflexive fashion. So, observe yourself the next time you find yourself engaging in this sort of compulsory chitchat. Once you have a fix on the sort of answers you give, ask yourself a second level of trickier questions. Do your answers vary depending on the audience? How? Why?

Many occultists I know are a bit cagey when responding to such questions. Often, this may be a dissembling due to some apprehension about how they will be received, but the savvier of this group demurs more as a result of an uncertainty about how one would answer such a question (and, honestly, a desire to seem terribly mysterious).

 

13: Unconstellated Stars: Tree un-Images

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We travel northeast from Yellowstone Park toward Billings, Montana. An hour or two before sunset the mountains began to give way to wider valleys and late summer fields. With AAA triptiks, full-size maps, and guidebooks strewn across the dashboard and her lap, my mother has guided us on a scenic tour of some exceptional landscapes. Now, in inky darkness, my father pulls over to the side of the two-lane highway. My brother and I slide out of the back of the overfilled mini-van and the sweet smell of ripe wheat in the night’s growing humidity intoxicates us.

This has been a good vacation, perhaps the best with all four of us together. I am getting to know my brother better and am old enough, coming into my senior year of college, to actually relax and enjoy myself with him — nine years my senior. This will prove to be the last vacation with just the nuclear unit. Marriages, relocations, careers, and tumult will pull us across the country and globe. Without exercising much intuition, we all understand this and have made the most of the time.

 

14: Madness The Third Void

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Few words are as abused as ‘madness.’ In general, critics usually intend this term as a sort of denunciation of any creation that insults the sensibility of the viewer. This offending creation can be an artwork, a cultural practice, a life, or a philosophy, to name but a few examples. ‘Utter madness!’ they opine. Victorian censors were particularly sensitive to this sort of offense. If the work in question had even the most distant of a hint of sexuality, the effect on the audience used to go by the charming term ‘scandalizing.’

The key, however, is the encounter not the supposed offending object. Madness, like beauty, is in-between. The encounter leaves the viewer unsettled and unsure to such an extent that his or her habitual means of explanation can no longer account for the experience. This encounter, this opening to the ultimate transience of any particular logic or rationality, is the essence of madness and serves as the touch-point for the rest of this chapter.

Many people mistakenly associate ‘madness’ with the pain of what, for lack of a better term, we call ‘mental illness.’ But here again we cannot look to the condition itself, but to the encounter to find the madness. Although those suffering from pervasive distortions of their lives, emotions, thoughts, and/or relationships may glimpse ‘madness,’ they are, more often than not, hardly in a place to avail themselves of the gifts of madness. The general public has pervasive and deep misunderstandings of the wide range of dysfunctions loosely grouped together as ‘mental illnesses.’ In part, this confusion is deliberate. Most people don’t really want to know about the extent and severity of these disorders.

 

15: Application 4: Love, Intimacy, Sex

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We all manage to create goals and reasons for our lives that have little to do with how we live — or want to live — our lives. This is a multi-layered conundrum. When someone asks us what we want in life, nearly all of us will say something like, ‘peace,’ ‘happiness,’ ‘to love and be loved,’ ‘respect,’ or some other abstraction of this sort. In spite of these declarations, we also find ourselves locked into lifestyles, jobs, relationships, and a thousand other compromises that we claim are all ultimately trying to get us to those big sparkling abstractions but are almost always at odds with them. And so, once we have created this dissonance in our lives, we find ourselves creating substitute goals — long-term diversions by which we can distract ourselves from the dismal reality that we have neither the ability nor the intention of actually living toward those initial ideal desires for our lives.

These substitute goals may include reaching the top of our cult’s game of ‘Initiatory Shoots and Ladders’ — or corporate ladder. Or it may include wasting 30 or more days cultivating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the form of some pseudo-historical ‘working,’ invocation, or practice — or a fad diet. Or it could involve hobbies like scrap-booking, banishing rituals, multi-level marketing, Massively Multi-player Online Role-playing Games, or sitting around naked with people for whom you have learned to have no emotional connection because the quasi-intimacy of nudity is overwhelming enough.

 

16: A Tale of Two Clients: Images of Terapy

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[Author’s note: In the interest of respecting the ethical guidelines of the profession of clinical psychology, the portrayals below are complete fabrications. Although typical of encounters I have had as a psychotherapist, none of the events portrayed ever occurred as described. These are caricatures of two difer-ent types of session but with some common themes.]

He is crying — again. His tears stream easily and occasionally a near feral howl escapes his mouth between mufed whimpers. All I can see is the moussed, thinning charcoal hair on top of his head quivering with each sob. The first five or six times this happened, I was devastated.

I’m a failure. I’m a terrible therapist. I just bungle into these wounded parts of him like a bull in a china shop.

After repeated efforts to interpret and contain failed, I eventually abandoned my clinical training and tried to console, apologize, and even attempted to take back the offending comment. In short, I buckled. A therapist must be able to endure the pain of the client and address the source of the suffering. Otherwise, the client’s woundedness runs the session and turns the room into a reenactment of the pathology or trauma. This was, in part, what had happened over our first year or more of treatment.

 

17: Chaos: Te Fourth Void

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We live in a world awash in a host of ‘causalities’ that offer themselves to neatly ‘explain’ our circumstances. Pundits, professors, experts, historians, physicists, (authors), and your parents all explain to you ‘how things work,’ ‘what makes that happen,’ the nature of ‘cause and effect,’ and so on. These explanations are stories that situate, nuance, and support our current experiences. They are mythoi embedded with ideas about the structure of agency, efficacy, and intention.

Oddly enough, as humans we have difficulty separating the idea of causality from a sense of intentionality. Even though most of us don’t literally think ‘that rock wants to fall down that mountain face,’ we still operate with a worldview that very nearly replicates that animist attitude. We isolate what we consider the salient aspects of some situation (e.g., the rock that moves) and attribute disproportionate importance to that particular aspect — that manifestation of circumstances. This limited perspective robs us of insight into the bigger picture and thus forces us to look only at what seems to be directly affecting our particular point of focus. In the case of our rock we miss the spring’s frost melt, the patterns of glacial deposition, the wind patterns, the activities of local ant colonies, the field of other rocks that don’t seemingly move, the heat of the sun, magnetic fields, the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, global climate change, and all of the other factors that intersect in the larger context in which our arbitrary rock situates.

 

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