Looking on Tumblr I realized I made a blog years ago, but made it private and only ever made one post. The post was an essay I wrote in 2008 in Cape Town that I called “Some Thoughts on the Ominous, and Magical Consciousness”. I think I wrote it for my photographer friend Jarred Figgins for some weird reason. I never did anything with it, and I don’t think anyone ever read it. I’m not sure I still stand by it all, but I figure people interested in magic and divination, or in how boringly consistent my long-sentence writing style has been, might enjoy reading it.
2008 me reads like someone influenced a lot by the ‘ontological turn’, which thanks to some of my University of Cape Town anthropology graduate seminars at the time I probably was. All the same, I’ve always kinda felt that contemporary ritual magic and neo-Paganism were like a sort of ‘applied ontological turn theory, without the PhD’, despite how much some academics want to disavow overlapping jurisdiction with deranged occultists (More on this here)
Anyway, here’s the essay:
“Many newcomers to the occult are motivated by a desire for manipulation – to manipulate the world, to alter and control their and others’ reality. It is a curious fact, however, that some of these novices hope to exercise such control without ever examining the current status of their world and the would-be objects of their manipulation. In their enthusiasm to change their present lot, they fail to broach a set of key questions, upon which the whole project of transformation depends: just what is this present lot in which I find myself anyway, how is it composed, how did it come to be? In sum, how am I already being manipulated (or in perhaps more forgiving language, habituated) into believing or colluding in it in the first place.
I have been a diviner (at least formally) since age eleven. In some ways, divination is one of the most attractive and popular aspects of the occult for the newcomers mentioned above. It is frequently misunderstood. Divination is about language and communication. Mastering some form of divination is like mastering a language, and involves the typical steps of internalising a basic alphabet or symbol-set and working vocabulary, as well as the rules of grammar and syntax, so as to begin reading and constructing meaningful sentences. Except here the analogy is limiting. For learning to divine does not involve learning a new language, or even a new way of thinking. Instead, it involves interrogating the most pervasive and familiar (if not the only) forms of thinking and language available to us, to begin to apply these to what seem to be unfamiliar ends and circumstances.
For the kinds of creative connections and intuitive cartographies entailed by divination, I contend, are no different to the ones involved in successfully identifying your toaster in the morning, or in adequately assessing how fast to walk to cross a road without being run down by oncoming traffic. What is important is that these processes are largely unexamined, and our experience of living in a world, or rather, ever deliquescing worlds, positively saturated with significance has become so routine as to seem unremarkable. “Two strangers sit down next to one another in a cafe,” E.E. Rehmus tells us, writing about telepathy:
“…their minds buzzing with separate conscious thoughts. They notice one another and smile – each knows the other is married and lonely for his wife. One is lonely because his wife is on a trip. The other is lonely because he is a widower. “You seem lonely,” says the widower. “Not at all,” says the other, “I am waiting for my wife.” They never know their minds had met.”
All of us have experienced moments when for better or worse, our usually seamless meaning and pattern-making processes unravel. An everyday word no longer makes sense, becomes unrecognisable, an impassive scribble; at our pre-arranged seat at the family dinner table amidst post-meal pleasantries we look about us, and say: ‘who are these people, why do I know them, what do they want from me?’ And at the height of passion, for all our heaving and sweating pre-occupation, we can’t guarantee that the thought won’t find us, and with surprising urgency: ‘What am I doing? Why is this happening?’ Matters of fact give way to matters of absurdity, terror, laughter, joy, despair and of no feelings at all in equal measure.
It is ironic then that we have to realise the extent to which we are always and already expert diviners, to begin to learn how to divine in the more classic sense. Moments of insight as described above are typically relegated to the domain of madness or worse, imply imbecility, or a kind of savagely medicalised malfunctioning. But here, the poet at a loss to articulate the scenes coalescing before her is no failure; she is neither poet-manqué nor hapless aphasic. Rather, she has gained something in being so overcome, for hers is the ecstasy Kahlil Gibran points to when he writes: “if I were to choose between the power of writing a poem and the ecstasy of a poem un-written, I would choose the ecstasy. It is better poetry.” What we need to do, at the beginning, and again and again, is to un-write the tyrannical poem of everyday living whose rhyme and meter we know by heart. We need to understand its tricks, its registers, metaphors, parts of speech and allusions. We can profit from these lapses, these lacunae in the relentless, routinised loops of our thinking and making-sense-of, provided we are cunning.
Tenzin Palmo, the working class Briton turned Tibetan Buddhist nun and yogi, who meditated for twelve years in seclusion in a cave in the Himalaya, presents us with a useful analogy for everyday, unexamined (or in Buddhist jargon samsaric) experience. It is like we are sitting in a darkened movie theatre, engrossed in the flashing lights before us on screen. We associate with the characters, their lives and trials, the twists and turns of cinematic artifice. When the hero suffers we weep, when he triumphs our blood thrills, our hearts soar. But rarely, if ever, do we step back from the phantasmagoria, turn around and ask where these scenes are coming from. If we did, we would find only light streaming through individual frames, from which somehow arise continuity and coherence. Stepping back, alienating ourselves even, from samsaric experience means capturing those moments in-between, becoming better acquainted with the subtle processes and mechanisms that are the ‘glue’ or continuity between those frames. We become aware of how those frames too, are themselves composed, but the spaces between remain most important, since on their own, bereft of complex sequencing and linkages, these frames are little more than dumb, static, singular pictures.
Counter-intuitively, perhaps, given its connotations of formalised, mechanical behaviour, ritual is particularly useful for this kind of starting to wakefulness, or detached mindfulness that is flinging oneself into magic and wildness. Ritual here is simply telling yourself to think differently, committing yourself to turning around in the middle of the movie. There are infinite ways to do this, much as there are infinite ways to read the future, to open to the ominous. All are serviceable, provided you are. Bridging the worlds of dream and waking is central. We need to apply a uniform discriminating awareness across these domains. New members to the occult fraternity known as the Order of the GBG, following two months of active membership and intensive dream recall and analysis, were required to take two oaths:
(I) I swear to tell myself the truth.(II) I swear to regard every event (or condition) as aparticular dealing between myself and the HGA.
The HGA or ‘Holy Guardian Angel’ represents in Western esotericism a kind of ‘higher genius’ – an ‘inner wisdom’, or, perhaps, ‘guru’ or tatagathagarba in Buddhist parlance, that both polices the constraints of the possible, and allows for an expanded perception of reality when we enter into a more mature relationship with it. To live by this oath is to walk a knife-edge, it is to exist in a world of continual unfolding, participation, and potentially maddening ‘co-naissance’. It is not a call to megalomania and useless paranoia, however. As one GBG member reminds us:
“The main point is that one must maintain a sense of keen awareness… Under this Oath, the budding magician stands between two extremes. On the one side is the near-psychopath who regards everything that touches the eye and ear as a particular secret personal message (to regard, or rather to believe, that everything which a person sees, feels or hears is an omen or message, is a psychopathic condition). On the other side is the impervious one who sees no soul message in anything. Here, the neophyte stands in the middle ground, with open eye and ear to heed anything that may he relevant to his/her Work.”
To see phenomena as numinous and responsive in this way demands responsibility (not to mention proper etiquette). It is an invitation to inspiration, and wisdom, where the world is your stained teacup, but it is also an all-out ban on laziness and victimhood, for there is no one else left to blame. Such is the burden and blessing of the ominous.
I end with some fun exercises, to be tried at home. The first, from Grant Morrisson, graphic novelist and magician, the last, from the late Andrew Chumbley, former head of the elusive Cultus Sabbati.
As a first exercise in magical consciousness spend five minutes looking at everything around you as if ALL OF IT was trying to tell you something very important. How did that lightbulb come to be here exactly ? Why does the murder victim in the newspaper have the same unusual surname as your father-in-law ? Why did the phone ring, just at that moment and what were you thinking ? What’s that water stain on the wall of the building opposite ? How does it make you feel ?
Five minutes of focus during which everything is significant, everything is luminous and heavy with meaning, like the objects seen in dreams.
Next, relax, go for a walk and interpret everything you see on the way as a message from the Infinite to you. Watch for patterns in the flight of birds. Make oracular sentences from the letters on car number plates. Look at the way buildings move against the skyline. The noises on the streets, voices cut into rapid, almost subliminal commands and pleas. Listen between the lines. Walk as far and for as long as you feel comfortable. The more aimless, the more you walk for the sake of pure experience, the further into magical consciousness you will be immersed.
“Every word, deed and thought can empower, magnetise, and establish points of receptivity for a magical dream, likewise any of these means can do the opposite – fixating perception in a manner that is not receptive – that seals the soul in the body instead of enabling it to go forth at will. Explanations of dreaming practices when given in a ritual context serve their own purpose – they reify the knowledge of the dream and empower the dreams of knowledge. Dreaming, like possession, trance and mediumism of various kinds, establishes direct communication with spirits and gods, and thus provides the vital means for the constant informing of one’s magical work… If any aspire to this kind of spirit-relation and wish to gain knowledge of dreaming, let them go out walking by day – away from the company of men, out into the fields of their locality. Conscious of their step upon the land, let them ask for a sign or token. If the spirits of the place find you acceptable, an object or omen may be revealed. For example, you might see a white stag, a black dog, a magpie, or find a hagstone, a gnarled root, a fallen antler or a snake-slough. Fixate your perception at every opportunity on this object and ask the spirits to open the way for you. When falling into sleep, hold the object in attention and again entreat the spirits. By letting awareness wander in the onset of dreaming, but at the same time tethering consciousness to the talismanic object, a ‘scope’ of receptivity is established – a field wherein new ‘wanderings’ may transpire. If you may walk knowingly in the fields of night, again entreat the spirits and, if they accept you in dreaming, a way shall be revealed. Here I point my hand toward the circle’s edge of this matter, but in so doing I trust in the Wards to test all who would approach. A wise gardener once said to me: ‘A true secret casts no shadow’. In this matter, even the secret’s telling holds its shadow beyond sight.”