In my last piece, A Statement of Purpose for The Modern Spiritual Seeker, I explored some neuropsychological concepts alongside some practical routes to experience of the religious; or at least some authentic experiences of the self. I promised a piece on ‘authentic writing’ and that is still definitely forthcoming.
In the meantime, I’ve been getting deeper into my study of what could be called a ‘wisdom tradition’, which also meets the practicality criterion and at least apparently meets the authenticity criterion for a good wisdom tradition. This is occultism/magick.
The problem is that it also seems to completely lack something that we really can’t do without, which is a criticality component, or I guess, a dialectical component. It doesn’t make much sense to have only a producer, but no constrainer. Without that, you don’t get growth.
To give you an idea of what’s to come, Part I of this piece will be an outline of the kind of occultism I want to talk about combined with some of my opinions on it.
Part II will be an attempt to critique it with help from the Hegelian Dialectic, neuropsychology, and also some common sense.
Part III is going to make wild and speculative attempts to address my criticisms, in terms of how we can rescue the experiential elements of Magick without throwing the baby out entirely.
While this piece is nominally going to be about a very specific type of Magickal practice, I think my discussion is generalizable to any spiritual school of thought that reduces into relativism.
You could say that my first problem with occultism is that I find it interesting. My second problem is that I find it useful.
You might be wondering why these are problems. The answer to that is fairly straightforward: most major figures in occultism are, for all intents and purposes, complete wackjobs. That means I find it difficult to take the ideas contained in magickal/occult texts seriously.
But, that doesn’t mean that their ideas are useless. They aren’t. For example, a lot of the work on attentional bias, now one of the major cornerstones of CBT, is arguably pre-empted in the mainstream by some explanations for the effectiveness of Chaos Magick.
At the very least, I think there is a plausible case to the effect that the emphasis on attentional bias and the emphasis on attentional bias in CBT emerged contemporaneously, and for the most part, independently, given that CBT originated in the UK at about the same time that the whole wacky occult thing was happening in California in the 60’s and 70’s.
It’s also possible that they both emphasize attentional biases due to the shared influence of Buddhist thought, with it’s own emphasis on controlling attention through ‘Right Focus/Concentration.’
Either that, or my own exposure to meditation has been influenced by Chaos Magick. For example, see this article by Daniel Ingram. I’m suspicious of the idea that thought proceeds in an orderly lineage, though. And we’d hope that ideas that stuck did so because they pointed at something useful.
Recently I was jumping into some books from Falcon Press, and I was having a good swim around in them. The first was Prometheus Rising by Robert Anthony Wilson, and the second was Undoing Yourself with Energized Meditation by Christopher S. Hyatt.
Although both of these books are somewhat similar, with their emphasis on exercises, I also think that the difference between the two illustrates my main issue with Magickal schools of thought and Occultism: there is absolutely no quality control, whatsoever.
Wilson is okay, he doesn’t seem hell-bent on producing nonsense for it’s own sake. Hyatt on the other hand, very much does.
The problem with Magickal schools of thought is that they emphasize nothing but experience and result. There is no criticality and no dialogical reasoning when it comes to picking one interpretation for a given phenomenon over another. In fact, I’m convinced that Hyatt’s basic ambition is to get us to stop allowing any particular interpretation of our world to hold precedence over any other.
That’s a problem for me, for a number of reasons. The first reason is that I’m pretty sure it’s impossible; that if you pretend you’re living without an interpretation then you’re really just ignoring the interpretation you have. This is illustrated very effectively by his constant insistence on introducing new-wave mumbo jumbo.
Maybe he would respond that he was introducing these ideas to ‘break my set’, which means– ostensibly in the manner of a Zen master– to make me realize how much my own preconceptions were influencing my perception.
Maybe so, Hyatt. But that sort of thing doesn’t get you very far with me if you just immediately jump on the hippy ideology bandwagon right after. It just seems inauthentic. Where is the honesty? Where is the law? Where is the order?
The second reason is that it whole-sale discounts the very idea of an interpretation. Interpretations are useful! Don’t forget that at the end of the Ox Herding Pictures, the adept still goes out into the market place and lives a life just like everyone else.
Dogen says: gainful employment is still free giving. Zen flesh is great and all, but don’t forget Zen bones unless you want to become a flabby sack of meat. CLEAN YOUR ROOM!
Note: I’m not even going to bring up Aleister Crowley because he freaks me out.
Okay okay, so most of this piece has been complaining so far. Or at least it sounds that way to me. Let’s get critical, which in this case means to try and impose some structure on this seemingly structureless domain. This is also going to be more difficult than usual, but stick with m
To do that, I’ll need first to explain an important idea from Hegelian philosophy, which is the idea of the dialectic. For Hegel, this is something like a universal rule for the activities of the mind.
Given that Hegel is also arguably an idealist— which means he believes the universe follows the mind-like rules, rather than matter-like rules at the fundamental level– the dialectic is also the process by which reality operates. If he’s right, then it’s pretty important that we understand this principle, no?
So here it is. The three steps of the dialectic process. Disclaimer: Nobody agrees on what Hegel means. Here, by ‘the steps of the dialectical process’ I mean ‘a conceptual tool I acquired through studying Hegel, and which I find useful.’ I don’t think I’m entitled to claim this as anything more than that.
Step 1. The thing in itself is apprehended initially. This is something like a naive initial experience.
Step 2. It is sublated into the thing for itself. This process is a negation, which is to say that the thing for itself is the negation of the thing in itself. This is something like seeing something in terms of everything it is not.
Step 3. There is a synthesis between the thing in itself and the thing for itself, wherein both the in itself and for itself are negated. This means that there is something like a double negation. Now, the thing is seen both in and for itself. That is to say, it is seen both in terms of what it appears to be initially; what it appears to be on further comparison with its negations; and what it is in light of both its initial appearance, its negative experience and a synthetic experience. This is something like seeing it in terms of its place in its full context.
This is a very important pattern. It is important because it takes uncontrolled appearance and effluence in the first step; it cuts away at it through negation in the second step; finally it enables to the emergence of a gestalt whole through the joint interplay of positive and negative steps.
Okay, so I’m getting really abstract. That’s because I was just cutting away brutally at your day to day experience, and putting it into boxes. This is something Magickal types hate, to their practical and theoretical detriment.
In his book The Master and His Emissary, Ian McGilchrist outlines a model of perception and cognition in terms of reciprocal interaction between a whole-focused Right Hemisphere and a critically part focused Left Hemisphere. McGilchrist hypothesizes that an optimally organized process of perception or cognition involves the right hemisphere perceiving the outside world directly and without conceptual intervention. He compares this to the initial step of the dialectic.
In the second step of McGilchrist’s idealized perceptual circuit, the left hemisphere steps in and conceptualizes and systematizes the field of perception presented to it by the right. This is to say, that the left brain cuts away and I would say sculpts discrete object-oriented entities out of the undifferentiated being it was offered by the right hemisphere. Sound familiar? We could, McGilchrist suggests, compare this to the second, negative step of the dialectic.
The Occultists and McGilchrist agree on a major point here, which is that a life lived trapped at the second step is absolutely miserable. Hegel would probably agree too. Hyatt suggests, not unlike Zizek, that a life stuck in this mode would lead to a life stuck in the proverbial Capitalist rat race. We could compare this conception to McGilchrist’s ultimate conclusion, which is that modern society is suffering from an excessive left hemisphere bias. A bias which leads us to, as Vervaeke would put it, remain trapped in the having-mode, and unable to ever inhabit the oppositional being mode.
We could compare this with the conclusion of Hegel’s master-slave or lord-bondsman dialectic, which is that it is ultimately better to be enslaved than to be an enslaver. This might seem unintuitive, given that slavery is miserable. Hegel’s point is– and I’m paraphrasing here– that self-consciousness and the ultimate growth inherent therein is only attainable via the creative work available to the slave and prohibited to the master.
It is one thing to see yourself reflected in an impression on the slave: that is the work of the master. It is quite another to see oneself reflected in impressions on the material world and to see oneself reflected through the gaze of another. That is the sole domain of the bondsman. Unless you are the object of some ideology, it is impossible to undergo the dialectical process that takes you from object to fully formed human consciousness.
Note: This is not an attempt on my part to defend Capitalism, at least not as it is currently instantiated. Also, I am getting really close to digression here, so let’s return to our critique of the occult.
My basic contention is that Occult and Magickal ways of thinking, like the ones espoused by Hyatt suffer fundamentally from an inability to apply critical or negative methods to improve on themselves. They are all step one, all positive. In terms of the master-slave dialectic, because occultists get lost in conspiracy theories and completely refuse to traverse the wasteland of a master’s ideology, they have completely blocked themselves off from the product of the dialectic, which is an actual appreciation of the world and a connection to it.
By sticking firm to the claim that ‘there is nothing beyond appearances: all interpretations are false’ they have functionally and conceptually crippled themselves. This is a criticism that can be, in my opinion, generalized to most boomer-core modes of thinking, for example, Behaviouralism in Psychology.
Which is a shame! Because some of their exercises are really useful!
So: how can we rescue the useful elements of Magick without becoming awkward edge-lords? What even are the useful elements of Magick?
Well, one useful element is the emphasis on drawing a line between the world of the senses as it appears without the interference of an ideology and the ideology that we usually see overlaid on top of the world as it is. I guess you could call this fingering the seam of reality.
Take for example, the exercises outlined in Energetic Meditation: having messed around with them before, I can confirm anecdotally that they do prompt changes in emotional experience, including unrestrained laughter, release of physical tensions, etc.
But then again, these sorts of ideas have been around since Plato. What is it that the Magickians have that Plato didn’t? Well, they have a bunch of experiential exercises. For the most part, these were misappropriated from Yogic traditions, which makes me a little concerned about them. As far as I can see, all the really dangerous Yogic techniques were edited out of the collective consciousness by the selection pressure of the profit motive.
This might be a good thing. After all, Carl Jung hypothesized that the Western consciousness on average might only invite psychological disturbance by pursuing these sorts of practices. Though he wrote that at a much earlier point in history. We might say that the whole existence of the Beat Generation was the consequence and symptom of that psychological disturbance writ large.
All that being said, I am partial to a bit of Wim Hof breathing, and I find both concentrative meditation and non-direct meditation to be endlessly useful personal practices. These are arguably practices which find their roots in Yoga.
The problem will the entire smorgasbord of spiritual techniques currently being peddled in our society is that it is very difficult to isolate any particular set of practices that is jointly compatible. I can only guess that this is because we completely lack a mythological framework under which to unify them.
Let’s be clear, here by ‘mythological’ I don’t mean a bunch of ancestral stories, though ancestral stories are great ways to express mythological frameworks. Instead, what I mean are a set of shared cultural meanings that are pre-categorical and pre-conceptual. Something experiential.
I’m talking about modes of behaviour as basic as the ‘Western’ tendency to automatically focus on the middle of a picture as compared to the ‘Eastern’ tendency to emphasize the whole picture.
Or in other words, what Jung would talk about in terms of the collective unconscious.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that portraiture reached its highest expression in the West and that the landscape reached its highest expression in the East.
The closest thing we have is arguably the scientific paradigm. The problem with the scientific paradigm is that expresses itself only in words and data. That’s great if what you want are words and data, but remember we were just talking about the importance of pre-verbal associations. Those are certainly assessable by way of linguistic tools, but they definitely don’t reduce to them.
How do we overcome the problem of the occultists? Well, we stop being afraid of mythology. We stop assuming that we can’t have mythology without ideology.
How would that look? To be honest, I have no idea. It might be the case that all mythology must ossify into ideology. In that case, I think we might find some really fantastic tools for overcoming that in the work of thinkers like Vervaeke and Peterson, who both emphasize reciprocal/cyclical processing in their models of wisdom.
For one absolutely amazing example of someone rescuing the mythology from the ideological, watch Peterson’s Bibilical Lectures. If we were to imagine Nietzsche watching them, we would have to imagine him happy.
Where is our ideology of continuous return? Where is our mythology of the unending cycle? If there is exactly one thing we that should come out of the cultural interplay between East and West, I think it should be an emphasis on the cycling of the Sun– wisdom comes and wisdom goes, the world is always shifting. Here ‘today’, gone ‘tomorrow!’ (Or maybe yesterday is already gone.)
That’s the sort of nonsense I was just critiquing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t illustrative. But I don’t think you can design a mythology. I’m pretty sure you just have to trial-and-error it. That’s how evolution works, man.
At some point in the future I intend to write a piece on what I think is the best approximation of a unified psychotechnology, complete with a mythology, and all the more important because it evolved organically: social dance!
I hope you’re excited. I sure am.