Tag Archives: spirituality

PantheaCon and Paganism, Part 1

Last week, Mallory, Teejay and I went to PantheaCon, and found it a profoundly un-positive experience. I don’t mean to say that we didn’t enjoy any of it, there were things which we very much enjoyed, and we are happy that we went, as it allowed us to experience things that we otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see. That said, a good deal of what we did see at PantheaCon was troubling and disconcerting.

After the fact, reading about other people’s PantheaCon experiences, the internet is atwitter with how positive and uplifting it was. It is incredibly difficult to find anyone willing to voice concern or dismay. And here I find myself torn, because I want to insert a caveat that I am not trying to discredit anyone’s positive experience of PantheaCon, and yet I feel like if people were willing to look objectively at the Pagan community as presented at PantheaCon, they would have had a significantly different experience. I have hesitating all week to speak about our experiences at PantheaCon because I simply can’t shake the sensation that any criticism will either be roundly ignored or shouted down. At the convention itself, I was amazed at how many people were absorbing what was being said entirely uncritically. There was one ritual in particular that I found deeply, deeply troubling and I remain uncertain how to treat the experience, and if I should write about it, naming names, or simply let it go unacknowledged.

I really did get the impression that a great number of people there were, to put it bluntly, drinking the Kool-Aid. There appeared to be very little critical thinking on display. I remember particularly a conversation I had wherein I mentioned how surprised I was how small the Wiccan presence at PantheaCon was. For as formative and important Wicca has been in American Paganism, I was disturbed that there was very little official Wiccan programming and that the three Wiccan organizations at the convention were all lumped together in one hospitality suite on the tenth floor. The person with who I had the conversation became incredibly defensive and said, essentially, that Wicca is no longer relevant to the Pagan experience. However, given the fact that some people claim Wicca to be one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, I really have to question that assertion. I also have to wonder what the actual demographics of those in attendance were, as I would be surprised if the majority were not some form of Wiccan.

I can only then surmise that the traditions on display were a result of fad, as much as anything. Wicca is hardly exciting at this point in time. As much as Wicca may still define the face of American Paganism, its role seems to be hardly acknowledged anymore. This is one of the reasons why I found it so troubling to see the programming focussing heavily on shamanism and African-Diasporic traditions. I honestly do not like to make accusations of cultural appropriation, as I think they are largely false and unfounded. Cultural appropriate is a tool of oppression and control, and I think that the way the charge of cultural appropriation is bandied about the Pagan community shows a remarkable lack of concern for the cultures being referenced. There is a difference between borrowing a technique from another culture, fully aware of what you are doing and citing your sources, and simply refusing to acknowledge that the techniques which you are using have a long and complicated history of use by another culture.

That being said, it disturbed me to see so much focus on the traditions of minorities when Mallory and I saw less than ten African Americans (there may have been more, but if so they didn’t make up a significant percentage of the attendees) and Teejay thinks he saw one Asian, maybe. Several of the African Americans which we did see were obviously presenters. It was odd as well that they only Latinos we saw were the hotel staff. Judging by PantheaCon, one is led to believe that Paganism is largely the religion of White People.  Those in attendance at PantheaCon didn’t even seem to represent the general demographic break down of the United States.

I’m not saying that we need to stick to White People traditions since we ourselves are all White People, simply that we need to be careful how we relate to the minorities within our community and ensure that we are engaging respectfully with their cultures. Having a series of events rotating around African-Diasporic traditions when there were very few African Americans in attendance really makes me question how comfortable we as a community make the minority groups we contain feel.

Now, PantheaCon did include a few nods to the minorities, with things like the Pagans of Color Caucus. Though, the official programming did not include T. Thorn Coyle’s panel on Pagans and Privilege, which was hosted by, yes that’s right, the Wiccans, in the Covenant of the Goddess suite, instead. I would love to know what was discussed there, but given how small the venue was I have had a hell of a time finding anyone who has actually discussed the proceedings.

I have a good deal more to talk about as a result of our PantheaCon adventure and I expect to have several weeks on content. I would apologize for being an ornery bastard, but it’s my nature. That said, I really do appreciate comments and responses. I write this stuff to generate dialogue and address issues which I view as important to the Pagan community. I am not trying to cause trouble, simply to highlight issues which I believe require further attention.

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Curious Antipathy: The Ongoing Struggle to Define Modern Paganism

Modern Pagan belief is largely founded on personal spiritual experience. Though there is, sadly, a great deal of infighting about what constitutes authentic experience, and near constant accusations of cultural appropriation, Modern Paganism marks a return of spiritual authority to the lay practitioner. Each Pagan has a unique and personal relationship not simply to the divine, but to discrete deities and spiritual beings. Paganism allows us not only to worship God as we choose, but to choose which Gods to worship. Essentially, Paganism is about building our own relationships with Divinity distinct of church structure. I am not, of course, saying, that everyone is therefore correct, no matter what they do, merely that Modern Paganism allows us much more spiritual freedom than many of us have ever experienced. There are still rights and wrongs, those concepts have simply been recontextualized.

From that basis, I find it baffling that so many of us spend so much energy trying to dismantle Christianity. We are all familiar with the various arguments against the authenticity of the Bible, with the historical malfeasance of the various churches and of the contemporary issues which many Christian faiths continue to struggle with or blatantly ignore. However, none of this says anything about the authenticity of the spiritual experience of Christians. How many of our source texts can evade the critiques which we level at the Bible? None. Not a single one. We talk about the lack of historic references to Jesus and the absence of archaeological evidence for the events depict in the Hebrew Testament, but how many trustworthy historical references and archaeological proofs are there for our own beliefs? Why do we require this kind of evidence from Christians, but not from ourselves?

I myself was raised in what I casually refer to as a cult. I personally understand the desire to distance ourselves as much as possible from Christianity. My experience was difficult and painful and I am still recovering from a lot of the trauma that I experienced. However, the reason why I eventually left that church had almost nothing to do with my personal struggle. The more I spoke to my fellow church members and to people of various faiths, the more I came to realize that my personal faith was simply not strong enough to justify my continued identification with that church. That itself was a traumatic experience. I had used that identification as a badge throughout much of my childhood. I hid behind it and used it to excuse my alienation from my classmates and peers and to disguise the things I found shameful about myself. That breakage was just as affecting as the religion itself. For years, I felt as though I had no solid identity. Eventually, this spurred me to do a great deal of personal reflection, and to figure out what I myself needed to foster and support my spirituality, my faith. I emerged from Christianity, and am emphatically not Christian, but that history had a profound effect on me and played a vital part in my spiritual development. While Christianity caused me profound pain, I know that without that experience I would not be the man I am today, a man that, for the most part, I am proud to be.

I think that we, as Pagans, need to accept our personal histories and understand the ways in which they continue to influence not only our personal progression, but also our progression as a culture. We need to resist the urge to attack the faiths with which we cohabitate. Of course, we feel persecution and alienation in contemporary culture largely as a result of the high saturation of Christian faiths in the Western World. That said, we do ourselves no favors by placing ourselves explicitly at odds with the people to whom we are trying to prove our authenticity, our equality. It is especially problematic when we, as a faith community, co-opt the strategies of the Atheist movement to attack our perceived enemies. We cannot require hard evidence of faith. We cannot demand proof which we ourselves cannot provide.

If we are willing to accept people who claim to have deep spiritual relationships with deities who have not been properly worshiped for close to a thousand years as speaking the truth, why do we refuse to recognize the deep spiritual relationships which Christians have with their God? We simply cannot denounce Christianity as false because it makes us uncomfortable.

The fear of Christian persecution has been built into the foundation of Modern Paganism. The Wiccan Rede reads as it does as an attempt to make Wiccans appear less threatening to their Christian neighbors. How many times do we hear random Pagans at Pagan events miscellaneously bad-mouthing Christians with little to no provocation? Our Christian antipathy frequently seems to be incorporated into Modern Pagan culture itself. That is problematic for so many reasons. Some of this, I believe, is a result of our continuing struggle to define our community identity. The simple question, “What is Paganism?” is notoriously hard to answer to everyone’s satisfactions and the current fuss brewing over at Patheos about polytheism versus nature worship is a good example of the constant back and forth bickering that has come to define the question. Pagansisms, and the plural there is intentional, are so varied from person to person, from practice to practice that any single rubric fails to account for all of the various forms of worship and theology that the Pagan community has incorporated into itself, or which have blossomed out of the occult and spiritual revivals of the first half of the twentieth century.

It is because of that difficulty that I suggest that many of us fall back on negative descriptions of ourselves. We are Pagan, and that means we are not Christian. Mallory and I have discussed this dilemma at some length, and she, quite rightly, asserts that people need something to define themselves against as a means of solidifying group identity. It is true that group identity is strongest in opposition, psychology has shown how deeply entrenched people become when challenged with an opposing idea, even casually. To a certain extent it makes sense that we look for things which differentiate us from the faith communities which surround us. The problem arrises, as I see it, when we solely define ourselves against other groups. Paganism cannot be defined negatively. Now, I know a lot of people have been doing a lot of work to produce positivist descriptions of Paganism, and yet it seems like a good deal of the community is content, in a practical sense, to simply identify as Non-Christian. There is, of course, the other pole of this wherein we end up saying things like “We’re just like you, only we worship the Goddess instead of the God.” Both of these definitions retain Christianity as the central term. Paganism is defined in relation to Christianity. These descriptions fall back on simple reductivism.

We simplify our identities to make them more palatable either to ourselves or to others. I firmly believe that if we are to continue to identify as a single community despite the broad variations which Modern Paganism contains that we need to do a lot of work as a community to build a coherent and cohesive definition. In doing so, however, we need to be willing to set aside our own identity defenses and end up in inter-community bickering, trying to establish ourselves as more Pagan than you. There is a large array of characteristics which combine and overlap to describe contemporary Pagan practice, and we need to be careful not to privilege anyone of those over the others. Doing so only leads to defensiveness and tension between different Pagans and Paganisms. We cannot reduce Paganism to Polytheism versus Monism, nor Nature Worship versus Deity Worship, nor thaumaturgy versus theurgy, nor any any other combination of polar relations.

Part of the difficulty in this discussion, I believe, is that may people see these polar relations as just that, polar and therefore incompatible. This dualistic relation, I do think, stems from the Christianity infused culture that Paganism has emerged from, at least in the United States. We as Pagans need to be able to release the dualistic world view of God against the Satan, of good against evil. At the very outset, Paganism has proposed a plurality of forces which act in the world with a variety of prerogatives none of which are necessarily good nor evil, nor even concerned with human activity. If we are willing to make that theological leap, why do we seem so hesitant to follow through with the appropriate ontological shift?

Hard and Soft Polytheism are not necessarily incompatible. Dionysus was worshipped across the Hellenistic World with a variety of guises and epithets, and yet each iteration still relates back to the same essential deity. Different regions, different villages would all have unique and idiosyncratic forms of worship and conception of Dionysus depending on the needs of the people, and yet, across these differences, the same God was being worshipped. We need to recognize that the Ancients’ relationships to their Gods was not as hard and fast and strictly defined as we would like. Our grade school mythology fails to describe the actual experience of these Gods and their relation to their devotees. Across cultures, the Ancients viewed their Gods as having profound control over their presentation and prerogative depending on the task at hand, on the social class of the supplicant, on the needs of society, and yet they still remained the same volitional beings, the same discrete Gods despite the variety of epithets with which they may be approached. We also seem to be properly terrified of admitting the role of syncretism in the Ancient World. The spread of Gods across Europe and Britannia should be sufficient to show that this was a strategy consistent with Ancient Worship which each culture had very little issue with. Would we really be willing to assert that the Isis worshipped in the British Isles is an entirely different being from the Isis of Ancient Egypt? What about the Isis cult of Rome? Are these not the same Goddess in different guises, in different aspects suited to the needs of the varied communities and cultures? Hard and Soft Polytheism begin to collapse into each other.

I recognize that I have provided very few strategies for moving forward and that, as it is, this sits as a rather harsh critique, and yet I feel like this is a necessary part of the greater conversation. Part of the difficulty with generating strategies is that it seems to me that we have a great deal of work to do both personally and as a community on coming to terms with the unique stresses that being Pagan in a domineeringly Christian culture has placed on us. A good deal of the time these stresses get ignored or externalized and the blame ends up getting passed around either within the Pagan community or pushed off onto our perceived foes. We need to be willing to do the work we need to do on ourselves before looking out into the community at large for all the answers.

Of course, not everyone wants to be part of the larger Pagan community, but those people need to respect the work that others our doing to build and foster the Pagan community, and if they are unwilling to do so, then they must simply keep themselves to themselves. We simply do not have the time nor resources to indulge in this petty sniping, these divisive and alienating more Pagan than Pagan arguments. We must be willing to approach the work of community building compassionately and intelligently, and foster understanding of our selves and our relations to others, as well as the roles which we play in the world at large. If Paganism is to survive as a community then we need to be willing to lay our personal issues aside and approach each other mindfully focussed toward the community, and finding that which makes us alike rather than that which makes us different. Only then will the community be able to serve broadly as a means of strength and support. Otherwise we are better off fracturing off into our own little schismatic factions and focussing our attention on our private affairs.

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Starting Again, a Month Later

Almost a month later, my husband and I are settling in to our new city. From what I’ve seen, thus far, I really like it here. Washington State is beautiful, and I constantly impressed with how lush and green everything is. I really get the feeling that if you leave something alone outside, after two weeks it will be covered with moss with a fern growing out of it. There’s a retaining wall directly behind our apartment, building, in fact, with a fern growing out of it which I have become strangely attached to. I have resisted the urge to name my little fern friend, but it makes me smile every time I pass it. I love little fern friend.

Of course, this transition has been a little strange and awkward. My husband and I are without reliable transportation, but that’s as much my fault and my laziness at getting my driver’s license renewed as anything else, and the weather has been pretty erratic as well. So, we’ve been spending a good deal of time sitting around the apartment. I have always had a difficult time establishing routines, and living as we do, it’s been difficult for me to keep track of the passage of time. All of which plays in to my ongoing difficulties establishing a spiritual practice.

Every morning I meditate for ten to fifteen minutes after taking shower and cleaning up for the day. That, as much as I hate to admit it, makes up the vast majority of my active spiritual practice. That said, the vast majority of intellectual life is caught up with spirituality, both my own and in the abstract, so I do feel as if I devote a good deal of my time to spiritual matters, even if actively spiritual pursuits make up a small portion of my day. However, even in saying that, I recognize that meditation simply isn’t enough.

Which is where my art making comes in. I have been incredibly hesitant to describe my creative pursuits as acts of worship. I suppose that my Christian Cult upbringing as tainted the idea of worship to me: I have a hard time giving myself over to something that I am told is holy. I do believe in divinity and the divine and I do view my art making as a way of connecting with those concepts, but worship, to me, carries so much baggage that I simply do not want to unpack. However, I also know that in order to grow, I need to confront the things that scare me. Worship, proper worship, not the fake for appearances performance that I engaged in in my youth, needs to be examined and experienced.

My art making is essentially an ecstatic state. When I am creating, I am buried in the act, and other concerns no longer bother me. When I am deep in the process, I will go all day without eating, all of my attention is focussed on the task at hand. On the surface, this should connect quite easily with my views toward worship and with the divine powers and ideas that I do connect most easily with. And yet… I am hesitant and, truth be told, afraid.

I do feel that proper worship is an ecstatic experience, a way of being that takes up the whole of one’s being. I have a very good friend who dances as a form of worship, and this makes perfect sense to me. Watching her dance, her entire comportment changes and there is nothing in her but the dancing. It’s a beautiful thing to see. I am really drawn to that kind of spiritual expression, to creation and creativity as the core of one’s spiritual practice. I suppose it is a means of worship which I view as preserving one’s innate being in relation to the divine. It seems to me that this kind of approach forces one to analyze and examine oneself and to transform one into a vessel of divine expression. The artist, the dancer is still always there, they are just there towards divinity. Worship, then, is an expression towards divinity, it is a way of being in that expression, ecstatically.

So, I have come to realize that I need to approach at least a portion of my art making as worship. I need to incorporate it into my daily practice and devote it to the powers that I feel in my life. I really have no idea what the final form of this work will take, or where it will lead me, but I need to allow myself to be in the act, to let it carry me where it will. I have no more excuses to hesitate, no more justification for my fear.

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I have always been aware that I am susceptible to the emotional states of those around me. As I child I was both very emotional and very empathic, some times cripplingly. Over the years as I grew up, I gradually closed myself off. However, I have always been, as they say, sensitive. The silly thing is, that now, as an adult, I had all but forgotten about how heavily the emotions of others press on me.

These last few weeks I have felt bogged down and listless. I have had a hell of time motivating myself, I haven’t seemed to have any energy to get things done; even my creativity has waned. A few days ago, I realized that this wasn’t just a phase. I decided to make a conscious effort to improve my mood and motivate myself.

I always get a little irritated with the people who tell you to “think happy thoughts,” as though being happy were as easy as that. As someone with depressive tendencies, such advice always struck me as vapid and hollow. It’s patronizing. If I’m sad, I have reason to be sad, and when I don’t, I know that it’s my brain being weird and I work around it. Well, I realized that this long stretch of ennui wasn’t for any good reason, and I have to work around it. Thinking happy thoughts doesn’t work, so what does?

A few months ago, Emjay suggested a book to me, which I promptly forgot about and then only again remembered when she posted a review of it on her blog. I promptly bought and read Sophie Reicher’s Spiritual Protection, and then, as I do, filed it away as useful information to return to later. Well, as it turns out, I’m kicking myself for not having immediately put the ideas in that book into effect. As I said previously, I tend to forget how susceptible I am to the moods and emotions of those around me. Also, working at a coffee shop, I encounter a lot of less than lovely people who range from casually cruel to actively spiteful. I simply hadn’t thought, as a spiritually aware and active person, how much of the negativity of other people was beginning to collect around me and weigh me down.

So, earlier this week, I pulled out my chunk of black tourmaline and after grounding and anchoring myself, charged it to deflect and absorb the negativity, petty viciousness and outright cruelty and malignancy of the people and forces that I encounter. I have taken particular time to strengthen this charge before going to work. As silly as it is, I have to say that these last few days I have been feeling quite lovely.

Now, I am always hesitant to ascribe a magical/spiritual cause to anything. It is possible that the effect is entirely psychosomatic. I have this stone in my pocket that I touch occasionally when I feel pressed upon, and I am taking time every few hours to control my breathing and center myself. Already that is enough to ease my tensions. I have found my head to be clearer and my energy levels to be much improved with no other real changes to my routine.

One of my very few objections to Sophie Reicher’s book is the immediate assumption that you are under spiritual attack. The entire text is written as though you are under siege from malign forces, as though you are surrounded by malign practitioners bent on making you suffer. On further reflection, however, I find myself largely agreeing with her position. Though I think that your average spiritual practitioner is hardly likely to be under active magical attack, my experience of the last few weeks has certainly led me to believe that for the spiritually aware person, the world is quite overflowing with things that we need to protect ourselves from, be they conscious attacks or casual unpleasantness. I would hardly say that I am under attack, but I do know that there are people around me who enjoy provoking and antagonizing those around them. I have come to the conclusion that for my own well being it is necessary for me to take steps to protect myself mentally and spiritually from such malefic influences.

I have been thinking, recently, that as we become more spiritually aware of ourselves we become more, and I hesitate to quite use this word, but I shall, vulnerable to the spiritual influences around us, for good or for ill. As much as I flex against the idea that we are constantly under attack, I’m not certain if that it actually a bad metaphor. While we may not be the direct targets of negativity, we are certainly besieged by it. I have come to realize, lately, how vital it is that I be aware of and combat these forces in my life. I think that it is important to come to terms with the fact that we don’t live in perfect little spiritual bubbles. We are influenced by the world around us and we need to be capable of protecting ourselves. The world is not sunlight and roses and puppy dog kisses, and no matter how good a person you are, no matter how enlightened you may be, that won’t protect you.

I was planning on writing a fairly detailed review of Spiritual Protection, but honestly, I don’t think that I have much more to say than Emjay already said, and so suggest that you go read her review instead. Now that said, I’m not necessarily, after that long preamble, advocating that you cling to every word that Sophie Reicher wrote. Spiritual protection is incredibly important and Sophie Reicher’s book is a very good, concise and detailed volume describing various techniques for various situations, but, as in all things, every individual is going to have different view points. I suggest detailed research and investigation, and Spiritual Protection is a good place to start, but it is by far not the only text available. In the end, all that matters is that we be aware of the forces around us, that we understand ourselves well enough to recognize when we are feeling the effects of forces outside of us, and that we are able to act appropriately. It’s not so much that we are under attack, I think, as we are surrounded.

They’ve Got Us Surrounded!

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Under the Blue Moon

This Friday past was the blue moon. I decided, on the cuff, to get some friends together and go moon gazing on the hill top in Frick Park. We picked up a few bottles of wine and around 10:30 wandered off into the park. Now, I will admit that my initial intention was to perform some sort of experimental group ritual, though with the final composition of the group it became apparent that was not going to happen. In the end, though, I think we all had an enjoyable, variously enlightening experience.

There is something quite interesting to me about the blue moon: unlike other astronomical events, the blue moon is an entirely calendrical artifact. The blue moon only has significance because of the way that we decided to carve up time, a sidereal calendar wouldn’t produce blue moons. Yet, something about the approaching full moon at the very end of August felt somehow special, alluring. I wanted to use this as a chance to experiment in fairly low stakes environment. If the ritual ended up as nothing more than a silly pantomime, or failing catastrophically, well, it wasn’t marking anything in particular, save an occasional calendrical oddity: the full moon will come again.

I have been deeply interested in the function of ritual, lately, and particularly given my own spiritual orientation, I find a good deal of group rituals to be less than thrilling. I admit, that I have attended relatively few group rituals, and that there has only been one local organization which has consistently impressed me not only with the precision of their rituals, but also with their scholarship, a local chapter of ADF. The reason that I have been repeatedly drawn to the open rituals of this particular group is because of how engaged they are with the theatricality of ritual. They seem to recognize how important it is to capture the attention of the participants and viewers and engage with their spirituality through their imagination. The rituals of theirs that I have attended included a lot of story telling, singing, chanting, divination and  costume. All of this has gotten me thinking on what is actually necessary in ritual. If you recall a prior post of mine, I have taken a semi-phenomenological approach to materia magica, and I think I similar approach is useful here.

For my birthday, a friend danced a blessing for me. Her spiritual practice is sacred dance. No words, just movement. In absolute honesty, I was shocked by how much power she was able to draw upon, by how much energy she worked up by dancing. In the Western Occult tradition we are repeatedly told how important the words, the words, the words are, and never shall you ever tamper with these spells handed down from times immemorial. Of course, modernity has struggled with this concept, and intent has krept in, weaseling around the edges, acknowledged but poorly explored. Intent, we are told, again, is vital and perhaps all of magic reduces to intent, so maybe all you need to do is intend really, really, really hard, and then, whizz bang, magic! Intent itself is a tricky subject, as a great deal of human experience is bound up in intent, and if we are going to have a functional definition of magic, shouldn’t it be precise enough to exclude the mundane intention of paying your cell phone bill from the uncanny intention of warding your apartment? Intent alone is insufficient, just as the word alone is insufficient. The dance succeeds because it looses both word and intent in the action.

I want to pull in here, as well, my previous musings on art as something which pulls you back to pure surface, to the act of perceiving. Indeed, I think ritual operates in a very similar way. Frequently one encounters descriptions of the importance of trance states in magic. Thusly, I posit that trance operates as a restoration of perception to itself. Descriptions of emptiness, of the perceiving of nothingness, of the evacuation of I, the ego, the subject, the cogito in the trance state, I suggest, are descriptions of perception returned to itself, reflexively engaging with itself. When one is in deep trance one is perceiving oneself perceive. I argue, then, that ritual aims to bring its participants fully into the state of pure perception. Magic, will, intent, may then spring up from that perceptual reflex.

My intention on the hill top under the light of the blue moon was to begin exploring these ideas in a group setting. In the end, though, everyone so inclined wandered off from the group, found a quiet patch on the greensward and offered themselves up to the beauty of the moonlight. The moon, that night, was truly beautiful. It shone brighter than I have seen in a long time, and the entire park was uncannily lovely. Myself, I offered up a libation to the moon and praised its beauty, its clarity, its radiance. Strangely enough, all our private adventures on that hill top provided a comforting sense of community. Some of us worshipped, some of us prayed, some of us simply enjoyed the beauty of the evening, and others chatted quite happily in the cool breeze, enjoying the companionship. It wasn’t a group ritual, but the space became special, spiritual, regardless.

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Beauty and Emptiness

I find myself constantly returning to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” I also constantly connect this with Marina Ambramovic’s disturbing refrain, “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful.” Art in my understanding of it is only and only ever can be two things: beautiful and useless. All other qualities, all other descriptions, come from outside of art. Art itself, pure, actual art is merely beautiful and useless: art is empty, evacuated, devoid.

What does art do that nothing else can do? It presents, perfectly and wondrously, pure spectacle. Art restores the world to pure surface, it signifies absence. It marks perception as perception, restores beauty to its primal state, before commodity, capital, value. The allure and seduction of art lies in its vapidity, in its total lack of depth. It is entirely because of this that from nearly the beginning of human history, art has acquired a value beyond measure: art is precisely that which negates all value.

Let us not, now, elide the techniques of art with art itself. The techniques of art, of its production, of its mystique have been utilized across time and culture for purposes which are distinctly anti-art. The most obvious of these to the modern mind will be propaganda and advertising. Both of these forms utilize the techniques of art, but unlike art, which is entirely kenotic, attempt to cover over the empty plain of pure surface with meaning, to mine into and implant social, political and commercial depth. Propaganda and advertising aim to tell you things, they carry with them a terrible depth, a drowning depth which seeks to override your own perceptions, to alter and subsume them into the desires of others for you.

These schemas blaspheme the face of art, which is entirely indifferent, blind. The aim of propaganda and advertising is to penetrate you, to fix you in the gaze of the political, the commercial, to transform you into an object of political and commercial power. Art itself serves only to deliver you back to yourself through its frigidity, its vacuity. What is absent in art is delivered into it through your perceptions. Art, strangely and viciously, however, remains entirely detached, it has given you back to yourself through its indifference. Art remains unaltered by you, by your perceptions. Your perceptions echo back from the pure surface of art and through you entirely into your own echo chamber. That which resonates in art is yourself.

There are, of course, the softer declensions of the techniques of art, those which maintain the usefulness of objects: crafts, and the like, those operations which concern themselves with the beautifying of things. A carpenter makes a beautiful table. The table is not art, it is foremost characterized by its use, it will always be a table, until it rots, or breaks, or is replaced, at which point it becomes garbage. The beautiful once table may be transformed at anytime into art, once its use is stripped of it, once it no longer becomes defined solely by its table-ness. Museums are full of antiques that once served as along side their peers to fill grand houses, demarcating social space and the use thereof, now, inert, next to busts and vases, they are returned to total object-hood, again empty, returned to the total surface which defined their materials before production.

Yet even the museum serves as an engine of commodity, marking what it acceptable as art and what is not. The contents of museums suffer and decline, loose some of the gloss of their pure surface in the face of the grand institutionalization of the commodity of art. The museum, the cultural bastion, seeks to implant depth, cultural depth back into art. Only the most dramatically useless, the most woundingly beautiful works can survive this violence. The great artists are held to be great because they strangely succeeded in creating total absence, art which endures is the art of nothingness. Only nothing can withstand the cultural turbines of the historicizing institutions.

Let it be clearly understood: art is not a mirror. A mirror serves to show you to yourself, to return to you your image. Art does not serve. It maintains itself in its uselessness. When you engage with art, you are engaging in a feedback loop within yourself, you are confronting the total surface of pure objects and the surface turns your perceptions back upon themselves. Art makes you perceive perceiving, and so doing, multiplies bizarre effects as perception, that which goes unnoticed, is thrown into sharp relief within the psyche and it becomes the only thing noticeable. Pure surface returns perception to you, fills you with it. You perceive not yourself, as in a mirror, but your perceptual powers themselves. Art is when it restores perception to you, when it collapses the reflex of perceiving into a single action, and embeds you psychically in perception, destroying your detachment from subject and object.

This is, obviously, a polemic. It suffers, as all polemics must, from an incredibly narrow and reductive focus. For that I apologize. There is a great deal here that I intend to return to and expand, to open back up.

I have been struggling for some time to write about the role of art and art making in my life and spirituality, but I have found the process much more difficult than I had originally realized. I found myself over and over writing mere validities like “art is deeply important to my spirituality” and then being unable to continue.

I realized after writing the above polemic that there I simply care too much to simply write about the role of art in my spirituality. I have too many theories about the political power and importance of art, about the cultural relevance of art, about the commodification of art and its position within capitalism to talk merely about its spiritual significance, especially as for me, the spiritual role of art penetrates into all of these other fields of discourse.

And so, I am opening up yet another project on this blog: an exploration of the spiritual import of art and its ramifications on the function of art in society.

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Towards a New Ontology, Part 2

So, then, having outlined the necessary conditions for its instantiation, what is the Subject? Simply put, the Subject is that mode of being which is reflexively self-aware and, so being, is emphatically engaged with the act of being at all points in its existence. One could claim that objects, which lack awareness of any sort, be in the most basic and fundamental sense. However, I would interject what may in fact be a radical reworking of the the verb, and suggest that being, in its most fully empowered sense, requires the Subject to actuate it.

Now, let us examine being. To be, without conjugation, is more than the state of mere existence, which I suggest objects possess. Objects do not be in the same sense as Subjects, they merely exist, subsist, or persist, but they have no active participation in the act. Objects are passive to the state of being, whereas Subjects are at all moments actively engaged in it. Therefore, being itself when applied to the Subject is modulated always into an active, perpetually refreshing state. The Subject is caught up in being by its nature in such a way that it must be constantly aware and interacting with its being. All action of the Subject is an effect of its own awareness of its being in a fundamental way. Objects lack this awareness, and so lack this direct engagement with being. Objects are bound up in a set of formal relations which determine all potential effects between all objects within a network, and so objects appear in being in a relatable fashion, yet are not possessed of being, meaning here both made full of being and possessing it as a manipulatable quality. Indeed, the Subject, I argue, is embedded within a strange reflex of being, both made of it and capturing it. The Subject is in such a way that being is altered by its presence. Being itself is enriched and fulfilled by the presence of the Subject. Being is realized in the Subject: no mere object can bring about the state of being.

I argue, thence, that the Subject is by its nature transcendent. What is transcendence? Well, now I must digress. I have always flexed against traditions which aim towards transcendence as a spiritual state, because such traditions universally fail to define transcendence in a way that leads the practitioner towards a recognizable goal. Transcendence is always something lost in the horizon, or else possessed only by the elect few, the transcendent masters (be they corporeal or ghostly), and never by the layman (unless they be a martyr or a saint, and then they must be dead to be so recognized). Now, I do not mean to say that one should not seek growth and expansion within one’s spiritual pursuit, merely that transcendence is something entirely different. The Subject, fully realized, must by its nature transcend the realm of objects. Indeed, the Subject, by becoming Subject has its basis entirely within transcendence. The Subject has, by brining itself into being, fundamentally altered its state of existence and has made itself transcend from object to Subject. The Subject is transcendent in as much as it is a Subject. To aim toward transcendence is to aim toward the most basic act of the Subject, the act which the Subject realizes fully upon its transformation into Subject.

I feel, now, like we are capable of addressing a question which should have arisen already. Why is a new ontology necessary? It is my belief that prior attempts to explain the creation of the World have always subjugated being to artifacts. By this I mean that attempts to explain being have reduced to an effect, a by product of other forces, of God, of Science. Rarely has the question of being itself been addressed, especially in a spiritual sense. God, Science, all these artifacts are secondary to being, and I do mean the enriched being of the Subject, and not primary forces. Only being itself is full enough to bring about the world, before which there was nothing, as there must have been, as something requires a something to notice it. Prior to being, there is no mechanism of creation. Being is not subjugating: nothing is declined in its presence. Being enriches and fills: it creates.

Is the Subject, then, being? No, the Subject is of being, and being is of the Subject, but they are not reducible to the same thing. Thus, objects are, in the minimal sense of the word, yet their being is made into being by the presence of the Subject. Being washes over and permeates, it transcends. There is an important difference, here, between extension and intensity. All things, objects and Subjects, possess extension. Everything extends through space, everything which exists exists dimensionally. Therefore, in extension, all things have equal ontological weight. Within pure extension, there is no greater value assigned to any thing, purely spatial relations govern all. The barest possibly meaning of being relates to pure extension. Intensity, however, incorporates much more into the meaning of being. Intensity relates to the powers of discrete beings. The Subject possesses greater intensity through its reflexive relation to being itself than objects. The intensity of the Subject, then, in relation to being grants it greater ontological weight than mere objects. The Subject is capable of being in a fashion which empowers it over the mere persistence of objects. Only the Subject can be in the fullness of the state of being, reflexively awash in being and being.

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Good Housekeeping

I have been under a great deal of stress, lately, for a variety of reasons, and I have barely been able to relax at all. I realized recently that a good deal of my inability to escape, even temporarily from my stress is a direct result of my current living situation. My space, my home, are very important for my mental well being. I need to have a place that I can identify as my own. It doesn’t have to be grand or luxurious. I have quite happily lived a space just large enough for a single bed and a small table for months on end in the fairly recent past. All I need is a space that is mine, a space that I can control, a space that feels like home. Going on six months now, I haven’t had a place like that.

Reasonably, I should. I am living in a lovely neighborhood, close to friends and relatively close to family. My apartment isn’t gorgeous, and I have my share of problems with the building and the landlord, but nothing that doesn’t come with the territory of renting. I don’t need a lot to be happy, and my basic needs are quite satisfied. My problem is that I have lived with a series of people who have not and essentially refuse to act respectfully toward the space and the other people who use it. My frustration and irritation with essentially being the only person who cares about and maintains the space has inspired in me a deep seated resentment and anger toward some of these people. I don’t feel at home in my apartment in no small part because every time I come home, or get up in the morning, or wander through the shared space, I am smacked in the face with other people’s disregard.

On several occasions, my husband and I have thoroughly cleaned, top to bottom, our apartment, and nearly every time we are then confronted with a heap of garbage, or worse, the end result of a much neglected cat’s boredom. Two of our roommates are moving out, and in preparation for showing off the apartment and finding new roommates, my husband and I spent five hours cleaning. It was torture discovering more and more nastiness that was a direct result of other people’s casual disregard for the home.

My frustration has gotten to the point, recently, that I haven’t been able to maintain a regular spiritual practice. The vast majority of my work is spent in quiet contemplation. I just feel so uncomfortable in my own home that I cannot get myself to relax enough to properly meditate. All I can think about is having to clean that mess in the kitchen, or the bathroom, or wondering why someone thought it was acceptable to just dump their shit in the middle of the living room floor.

It also doesn’t help that our apartment appears to also be home to some rather strange spiritual entities. They don’t seem to do much except occasionally freak out the cats and play with doorknobs, but it can get a bit unsettling. I have been loathe to really do anything in no small part because I feel like I can’t throw them out of my home until, well, it actually feels like home to me.

Part of home is cooking, it always has been vitally important to me. Sadly, the kitchen has been a battle ground for some months now. I don’t like cooking because I don’t trust that someone isn’t going to freak out at me because I left a pot on the stove, or that if I leave something in the sink to soak, that it’s not just going to have a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t need to soak heaped in on top of it and made dirtier and grosser instead of just being washed in the first place. One of my chief joys is cooking breakfast, pancakes, waffles, french toast, bacon… there’s no better way to start the day than cooking for your friends and family. I just can’t do it, as there’s always an unwelcome surprise waiting for me every morning in the kitchen.

Luckily, all of this will be changing soon. People are leaving and people are coming in, and I am hopeful for the future of this living space. I am looking forward to having a home that I can care, comfortably, about again, a home that’s not a bundle of resentment and frustration. I am looking forward to being able to set aside a space for my spiritual practice, a space that I can meditate and reflect in and know that no one will disturb me there. I am looking forward to being able to relax.

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Why I Am Not A Hermeticist

Eventually, I’m sure, I will tire of attacking the Hermetic basis of the vast majority of the Western Occult Tradition, but for the time being I am too caught up in my analysis thereof to simply content myself with what I have so far written. I realize that I have placed myself philosophically emphatically against Magico-Spiritual systems that rely upon essences, and, in doing so, strike out a broad swath of Magical Practice within the Western Tradition.

I think that part of the reason for the apparent dominance of Hermetic Style work is largely a result of the occult and pagan publishing houses. Hermetic Style Magic is appealing to a lot of people because it promises results straight out of the box. Indeed, for myself, that is why I have had a very difficult time abandoning the Golden Dawn rituals which I sharpened my teeth on. I do think that such sorts of Magic, properly practiced, being based so heavily on formulae and repetition can guarantee a certain sort of success without much other work. That said, I find a great deal of the underlying rhetoric to not only be reductive, but frequently offensive. I think it is too easy for a Hermetic Magician to reach beyond themself, and fail to apprehend the mechanisms in action behind their actions. I would argue that the foundations of Hermetic Magic are built on an abstraction at several removes from the basic functioning of magic, and the the power upon which it draws emerges from a source which is refined and denatured by the Hermetic frame work, to the point that the source itself is disguised beneath so many distortions that, to the practitioner, it becomes invisible. The framing of Hermeticism removes the ground from which it emerged.

I am so easily frustrated with the framing of a great deal of Occult and Spiritual writing that I find myself turning to Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty for spiritual advice (or Foucault, when I’m in a particularly black mood). I suppose that in the end I am too aware of social and historical constructs which have produced the very specific sort of knowledge which we have recognized as Occult to ever be willing to accept such writings as either true or honest. I find something reprehensible as well in the very naming of such knowledge, which aims at truth and honesty, as Occult, meaning hidden, occluded, secret. The tradition which produced such themes relies primarily, even today with the great power of the internet, on restriction. That which is Occult only maintains its intensity as such by the maintenance of its secrecy. Surely the truth and honesty of being are immediately accessible regardless of the socio-historical frame which seeks to contain them. Being must subsume all such knowledge and be the primum mobile behind all such knowledge. Today’s Occult Knowledge is merely a rarefied and refined sort of secret entirely dependent upon the discrete cultural forces which shunted such knowledge into a very particular category: that which must not be known by the majority of society; that which is dangerous.

I think, today, that many people are content to assume that Hermeticism is and always was a discrete, intact, and perfectly recognizable system which, while it may have influenced the cultures around it, was entirely pure and uninfluenced throughout its emergence and refinement. I recently read a book, lent to me by a friend, The Secret Source, by Maja D’Aoust and Adam Parfrey, which I think quite succinctly encapsulates this issue. The first half of the book aims to reveal the late Victorian Occult origins of the Prosperity Gospel and the wave of self help demagoguery typified by The Secret, which I feel it honestly does quite well. However, the second half then delves into the deep history of the Hermetic Tradition which influenced Victorian Occultism, and hence a vast majority of the Modern Western Spiritual and Occult Movements, and in doing so, seeks to reinforce the basic Hermetic Myth that this particular form of knowledge predates all others and was handed down directly from the gods to quasi-god-men who maintained and secreted this knowledge through the ages to preserve it against the corruption of mankind in expectation of some Great Work yet to come. In that way, such a system is, by its nature, Apocalyptic, perpetually revolving around a system of secrecy and delay. Those who know where chosen to know, and it is incumbent upon them to protect and preserve such knowledge, while simultaneously using it to manipulate the world around them to their own enlightened ends toward an us yet unknown and potentially unknowable final agenda.

Enlightenment is incumbent upon secrecy. One can only become enlightened once one has gained the secret knowledge which they can only gain through the beneficence of those already enlightened. Such a system resembles a pyramid scheme: a spirituality of a knowledge which must be controlled and contained. Knowledge, then, is the root of spirituality in this system. A particular knowledge must precede spirituality. Spirituality is thus a secondary effect. One cannot be truly spiritual without first having access to a rarified and refined tradition which places itself at direct odds against the world in which it is embedded.

Hermeticism is essentially a spirituality of The Word. Hermeticism derives from a particular sort of knowledge which is not experienced, but acquired linguistically. The magic of Hermeticism is one which relies powerfully on linguistic abstraction and repetition. The speaking of words themselves is magical and all power is channelled through their annunciation. Hermetic Magic seeks to pronounce the world into a particular way of being: from abstraction to instantiation. The action of Hermeticism is profoundly based against the World.

Indeed, I would argue that systems such as Hermeticism posit language as preexisting the world. One would be hard pressed to find a text which better describes Hermetic thought than this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. – John 1:1, King James Bible

Yet, how many Hermetics would accept a Gnostic Christian basis for their beliefs? Very few in my experience. The argument could be made that Hermeticism pressed into early Christianity, but the reverse of that argument is equally powerful. The earliest sources of the most basic of Hermetic texts, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes only dates to the tenth century. We have no reason to believe that Hermeticism is anywhere near as ancient as it claims to be. Nor do we have any reason to assume that it is anything more than the product of a complex Magico-Spiritual milieu resulting from the cultural blending of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Near Eastern thought during the expansion and proliferation of the Roman Empire.

Hermeticism is a primarily gnostic practice. It posits a linguistic world against the world of experience. Indeed, it seems to emerge from a culture which produced a variety of gnostic faiths. Hermeticism is just as bound by its cultural framing as any other religion. It is only useful as a spiritual practice as long as one maintains that awareness: whatever truth it contains is a very particular truth emergent from a very particular set of circumstances, and it can only speak within that framework.

The framing of Hermeticism also allows it access to a devouring syncresis, as particularly typified by the work of Dion Fortune. A friend and I were recently discussing Dion Fortune’s role in Modern Paganism in this regard. I think that one of the more destructive strategies of Modern Pagans striving for acceptance has been largely derived from her work. Within the Hermetic frame, all Divinity derives from the single Hermetic God, all other gods being mere aspects of that One Great God. Dion Fortune expounds these principles in great detail in her book The Mystical QabalahWithin that text, Fortune explains how all the various pagan deities relate to the Qabalistic Tree of Life, and thus seeks to unify all pantheons into not simply one pantheon, but One Great God in various emanations. Here, again, we have a vast array of Spiritual Experience being rewritten and altered to fit within a single framework which forcefully disregards the traditions and cultural backgrounds of each under the baseless assumption that Hermetic Knowledge preceded all other forms of knowledge, and is, therefore, the only true knowledge.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the traditions of the ancient world which Modern Pagans are attempting to return to have been so degraded and damaged by the incursion of Christianity that we simply do not have enough data to accurately reconstruct them. However, I do not think that justifies then turning to Hermetic and Golden Dawn based work, as such work is innately at odds with the individual power and cultural constructs which produced all of these discrete traditions. I know that it is asking a great deal to turn away from the structures to which we have become accustomed, but I also think that it is incumbent on us to understand the way these various institutions, spiritual or otherwise, interact, and the agendas which they carry with them.

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Pure Color

Twice, so far, the experience of color has been utilized as an analogy for Spiritual Experience on this project: once by me, and once by a commenter. I find the analogy quite fascinating. Color does not, in fact, objectively exist, but is an artifact of the way we perceive light. There is not, simply put, any such thing in the world which is by its nature red. The existence of red is a thing which requires first a particular biological apparatus and then a particular mental construction for its most basic existence. What we perceive as color is nothing more than selective reflection of certain wavelengths of light. That light which an object does not absorb, but reflects away from its surface, we perceive as color due to the peculiar nuances of our neurology.

This becomes even more fascinating when one reflects on the way that color is then encoded in various human languages. Japanese, I have been told, does not distinguish between blue and green. The Poetic Edda names only three colors in the rainbow (though, interestingly, this essay by Kirsten Wolf, explains that this was a common view in Ancient Greece, as well, referencing Aristotle and Aristophanes). It seems as though there is more than mere physiology which plays into our perceptions of color, but some form of inculturation as well. The perception of color is as much a result of form as it is of concept.

I am fascinated with the way that our culture interacts with color, particularly in the realm of home decor. A wall is no longer merely pink, but Ballet Slipper Pink, its name raised to a proper noun and turned from mere word into phrase. Color, in this context, is no longer meant to speak simply of optical effects, but of a subtle emotional details, of a lifestyle: of a way of being within a particular space. Within a room painted Ballet Slipper Pink, we become like little girls, playing at being ballerinas, we are returned to a child-like state of easy imagination. There is, in this forum, a great mythologization of color. Color has the power not only to transform a space, but also the occupant in a purely ephemeral way. An act as casual as walking through a door can now render a strange transmutation, an entire demeanor and manner of existence is altered as one navigates through the rooms in one’s house: from Greek Sailor to Ballerina to Fly Fisherman all in twenty paces.

I think this strange elision goes further, as well, especially with the generations of people who grew up with artificial colorings and flavorings. Drinks are often no longer defined by the fruits whose flavors they are meant to mimic (and fail at, terribly), but by the color of the liquid. Blue is now a flavor, and I can describe and contrast it with the flavor of purple (purple is mellower and slightly more sweet, whereas blue is tart and a little cooling, occasionally with a salty note). I find it incredibly interesting how color, centered in our visual perception of the world, comes to overwhelm other sensory inputs.

Color is pervasive throughout our experience of the world, and yet the subtleties of color become incredibly hard to describe without resorting to poetics. As such, I find the analogy of color to spirituality to be quite useful. Both are artifacts of the particular ways in which we experience the world, and yet both are slippery and elusive in definition. I wonder at the cultural forces which produce the varied discourses on color, and wonder if there could be a linkage with spirituality as well. At what pint does it become necessary for a rainbow to have more than three colors? At which point is it necessary to fracture blue into green and blue? I don’t feel as though we can say that the originators of the Poetic Edda or Aristotle simply did not see all the colors, it simply wasn’t necessary for them to define the gradations beyond three divisions. When does the linkage between color and concept demand that the discourse of color complicate itself to the point that we, today, have a vast array of English color terms?

I would argue that the discourse on Spirituality is just as tied to cultural pressures. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that Spiritual complexity is directly linked to cultural complexity, merely that the needs different culture phenomena impact and alter the ways in which a culture will contextualize Spirituality. How much is Spirituality a cultural product? While one might turn away from the idea of color as cultural product, the meanings and allusions which we link to the experience of color are as much embedded within a cultural context as within the realm of our pure experience.

I think, as far as Spirituality goes, it is incumbent upon us to examine those culturally instill definitions and sensations and analyze their inherent usefulness. I would never imply that one is entirely bound by one’s culture, merely that culture supplies a set of ready made meanings which we quickly map on to given experiences, and which we, as Spiritual Seekers, must be aware of and resist as necessary. The pure enjoyment of color can become quickly muddied by certain cultural allusions (men must not wear pink), and Spirituality is just as prone to such contamination.

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