Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Spiritual Ancestors as Heroes

Recently I’ve had a very unpleasant experience arguing with an occult pundit (Nick Farrell) who basically called me a naïve fool because I honor my spiritual ancestors and treat them as heroes. Because I celebrate and honor my spiritual ancestors and treat them with a certain amount of reverence I am considered a dupe and a fool. The reason for this criticism, of course, is because I happen to revere such individuals as Alex Sanders, Gerald Gardner, Aleister Crowley, MacGregor Mathers, or any other number of occult founders and trail Blazers. I take an uncritical and positive outlook on these individuals because they have had such an impact upon my own workings and study. Maybe that’s being naïve and stupid, since in our current time it’s so trendy to be cynical, negative and disparaging of the occult luminaries of the past. I have been called a pathetic hero worshiper and that makes me the worst possible judge of anyone’s character, especially those who have been dead nigh these many years. Yes, I admit it, I’m rightfully found guilty of hero worshiping, but I think that I have an important reason for taking this stand.

It’s not as if I haven’t read about these individuals and know all too well that they were human beings with human failings and flaws. I have also talked to individuals who personally knew Alex Sanders and the consensus is that he was quite a disreputable character. There seems to be no lack of stories about things that Alex did that were notorious and completely over-the-top. It seems that everybody has an opinion about Alex who knew him, and most of those opinions tend towards the negative. There are some people still living today who absolutely despise Alex and have few or even no fond memories of him whatsoever. Someone once told me that Alex was the kind of man who hated to work and so chose a life that was materially precarious when all he had to do was keep a regular job, and that would have made his life and the lives of those he supported more stable.

So, Alex Sanders was something of a gold brick. He was also reputed to be a great storyteller (another way of saying "liar") and had to be the focus of attention at all times. He invited the press and even the police to his very public gatherings in order to garner as much publicity as possible. That’s hardly the kind of stellar image that one would consider either heroic or worthy of emulation. Even so, Alex was a trailblazer and started his own tradition. He was an avid experimenter and tried to mix all sorts of different occult disciplines together into a workable whole. His tradition invited many different and divergent people together under one large tradition. Many of the first gay and lesbian witches that I met years ago were Alexandrian, and this was also true of the first African American and handicapped members. Alexandrian Witchcraft was the “big tent” tradition, and this was before other traditions appeared that catered to specific social collectives, such as the Dianic tradition. Perhaps we can turn a blind eye to his various flaws and bad behavior if we focus instead on what he contributed to the pagan and witchcraft movements. The world needed Alex Sanders, warts, obnoxious behavior and all.

What then is a hero? How do we define what a hero is in our culture today? Is Superman or Mighty Mouse good examples of the iconic hero? What about the antiheroes that are found in Marvel comics? Are they to be considered heroes as well? I found myself pondering the definition of a hero, but then I remembered that a good place to find that definition clearly established would be reading what the author Joseph Campbell had to say about it. Joseph Campbell says, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than one’s self.” Well, that seems simple enough, but does that fit the heroism of being a spiritual founder? Additionally, Joseph Campbell says that a hero brings back a “boon” to his community. Basically, Mr. Campbell is referring to the hero’s journey, and the object of that journey is to return something back from the underworld into the world of light. The hero also manifests a steadfast virtue in what they have contributed to their community, despite all of their flaws. According to Campbell, heroes are indeed flawed because they are so human. They are, in word, us. A cartoon hero on the other hand often lacks the kind of humanity necessary as the foundation of being a hero. Despite being flawed, the hero becomes a role model that inspires the rest of us to be better than we thought we could be. A hero is also inspired by an “inner calling.”

I believe that if we take what Joseph Campbell has defined regarding a hero, we can easily apply that definition to individuals such as Alex Sanders, Crowley, and Mathers - not to mention Gardner and many others. As heroes we would expect them to be terribly flawed on the one hand, but also inspiring and the bringer of a profound new way of thinking or practicing occultism on the other. All of these founders had that in common with each other, and all of them were egregiously flawed. To accept their gifts while repudiating their characters or disparaging them could be construed as being highly ungenerous, if not cynically and selfishly motivated. We all owe these founders a certain amount of respect and consideration because we have accepted their gifts and use them in our work; since to behave otherwise is to show oneself as greedy, power-hungry and soulless. I am not advocating that we turn a blind eye to the flaws and imperfections that were so highly on display by these founders, but instead we should really focus on the gifts that they bestowed us. All I am saying is that you can appreciate the history without having to assassinate the character of those trailblazers who came before us. After all is said and done, their gifts were certainly important to us occultists.

Because I’m an Alexandrian witch, then Alex Sanders is one of my spiritual ancestors. Since I also work the Golden Dawn system of magick, at least in part, then MacGregor Mathers would be considered one of my spiritual ancestors. I have to also include Alister Crowley as one of my spiritual ancestors because I have benefitted greatly from reading his work and I was also a member of the O.T.O. Gerald Gardner would be yet another spiritual ancestor in my witchcraft and magical lineage. There are probably many others as well, but that’s the group of ancestors that I’m willing to talk about. So, these four individuals who are founders of their respective traditions make up part of the overall lineage that I have followed as both a witch and a ritual magician. As representatives of the various streams that make up the current of spirituality and magick that I follow, I believe it is important to venerate the memory of these individuals because as magical heroes they have given the world great gifts, and I happen to use those gifts.

We, as ritual magicians, do not stand alone or in isolation. Our practices, whether or not we have been inventive and creative, have come down to us from the work of many other hands across the centuries. This is the whole basis to the perennial philosophy, and while we may add a greater or lesser share to this knowledge, we have received what our spiritual ancestors have passed on to us. Therefore, lineages are important and represent the combined streams that seamlessly joined together to formulate the work and practice of each initiated ritual magician. Our lineages are not exclusive to those founders whose tradition we were initiated into, since each and everyone of us has borrowed extensively from other sources. We are, in a word, a melange or mixture of many different traditions and strains.

To give respect and veneration to the founders of our tradition and practices, we receive from them empowerment, since this opens and establishes the connection between us and them. While this might function as an egregore of a tradition, it is not limited to that vehicle, but could represent the single contribution of some brilliant luminary in the past. Therefore, to use the gifts of our spiritual and magical founders is to be empowered by them. And if we are to retain a certain amount of grace and positive intent in our practices it is important for us to not only acknowledge them, but also to venerate them. This means not just respecting them and their gifts, but also giving them offerings and periodic acknowledgment. This is a Pagan thing to do, to honor our ancestors, both those that are genetic as well as those who represent the lineage of traditions and ideas that we follow. We act this way to retain a certain amount of honor for ourselves and for our work. Just as we give offerings to our genetic ancestors in order to function as modern pagans, we should also give offerings to our spiritual ancestors as well. We do this despite their history and notoriety as flawed human beings who had many failings and even engaged in disreputable activities. This is not white washing or wishful thinking, or even a terrible naïveté; it is a pagan way of honoring those who came before us. It is also how we honor the gifts that they courageously sought and achieved for our benefit.

Now, when we consider everything that I have written up to this point, you can see the ideas that I am promoting and even celebrating as a witch, ritual magician, initiate and adept. I believe that being faithful to the founder and the trailblazer of one’s spiritual lineage is an important part of being an adept. It is not naïve nor foolish to venerate one’s spiritual ancestors, just as it isn’t foolish or naïve to venerate one’s genetic ancestors. It is part of being a pagan and a magician, and so in this context to behave and comport oneself in this manner is honorable and generous. After all, wouldn’t I want people to behave in a respectful fashion to me after I have gone to great lengths to give them the lore that I have labored upon for so many years? Do I want people to disparage me for my all too human failings and personal flaws while at the same time greedily using my ideas and writings for their personal betterment? I believe that that is the real issue regarding the honoring and veneration of spiritual ancestors. How would you like to be treated disparagingly by posterity in the future when you are unable to defend yourself, and even worse, when those same people are still using your ideas and rituals?

While it is so trendy and cool to be cynical, disparaging and cleverly negative to anyone who is a founder or trailblazer, or even someone who could be considered a magical hero, I think that it is despicable and deplorable behavior which only serves to define someone who is actually bankrupt of any original ideas and morally a scoundrel. This might sound like harsh criticism, but I see it as a powerful antidote to the popular sentiment of iconoclastic thinking that seems to be the trend in postmodern occultism today. I stand against that kind of thinking, which I suppose makes me something of counter force in popular thought. Then again, I think that I have good reason for acting and believing as I do because I have found that the popular consensus contradicts both good Pagan theology as well as good magical practice.

Frater Barrabbas

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Coming Forth from Darkness

It’s been many weeks since the last time I wrote anything to my blog. The truth is I have been fighting against a very terrible malady. That malady that I have been fighting is the inability to sleep normally like ordinary people do. It has taken me from October until now to be able to sleep normally with assistance. I am now using a CPAP machine to help me breathe normally at night when I sleep. For those who have never suffered insomnia or sleep apnea, I have to tell you getting a full night’s sleep is extremely important. My struggle against insomnia also included a struggle against Ambien dependency. I was taking Ambien for 47 nights straight before finally deciding that I had to stop taking it altogether. During that period of time, I got to experience some of the more nasty side effects associated with that drug. So, I experienced night sweats, anxiety attacks, hallucinations, nausea, and vertigo. I functioned as if in a cloud, not being able to focus on anything that was outside of my periphery.  I even experienced forgetfulness, absentmindedness, demented imaginings and all sorts of dark fantasies. It was somewhat horrific when that happened, and thankfully, it was brief and I was able to pull myself out of it by the strength of my will. I am certain that it would have gotten much worse if I had continued taking Ambien, although I would have run out of my prescription well before then.

I went through two weeks of withdrawing from Ambien and now I’m no longer taking the drug. This change has made me feel so much better about everything. I’ve read all sorts of horror stories on the Internet about the drug Ambien, it’s pernicious powers of dependency, addiction, the particular gruesome withdrawal side-effects, and I now know that they are not exaggerated. Our culture seems to be obsessed with the use and sales of illegal drugs, but very little is said about the effects and use of pharmaceutical drugs that are prescribed by doctors. This whole process that I’ve experienced has been quite an ordeal, and one that I don’t want to repeat. As I become accustomed to the CPAP machine I will begin to experience normal sleep cycles without any other aid. I am happy to report that I have achieved that goal.

Good health is very important for anyone, especially occultists. If you are waylaid by sickness or poor health, how can you ever focus on spiritual things and the subtleties of the occult world? And I might add, that good health is not something that you can take for granted. When we are young, most of us experience good health throughout our 20s, 30s and even into our 40s. Yet it is foolish to take good health for granted at any point in our lives. This state of solid physical health must be maintained, especially when we get older. I have stated in previous writings that being in a state of good health is an important foundation for the practice of magic. It’s pretty hard to work magic if you are distracted by poor health or your vitality is sapped by disease and physical stress. I have acknowledged this lesson and I realize that I must work ever harder in order to maintain a modicum of good health. To tell you the truth, this is my most difficult occult ordeal. If I want my life to have value and to be enriched in my autumn years then I’m going to have to regularly work out, stay active, diet and eat sensibly, or face a painful and disease ridden old age. The key here is to have quality life in your autumn years, yet so many of us are sadly kept from that goal.

From time to time I have seen news statements, messages, and various Facebook feeds announcing yet another occult luminary or important pagan founder succumbing to bad health and even death. There was a time when many of these folks were young and in their 20s, and the movements they were a part of were also young. We all assumed that life was good and that we and our movements would last forever. We thought we were immortal and above and beyond the cares and concerns of old age and declining health. Perhaps some of our numbers were culled by accidents or mishaps, or even the tragedy of excessive drug use or alcoholism. These things happened to other people that we may have known or not known, so they were easy to ignore or to forget. And now that we are getting older we realize that we are not immortal and that how we have lived our lives will certainly help to determine how it ends. Now we know that we are not immortal and that all of us will someday die. Some of us will die a lot sooner, and some of us are actually quite sick and dying right now.

All of these thoughts about mortality and death seemed to be very much a part of my spiritual process in the last few months, and I even began to think about the end of my life. I had performed some divination and knew that I wasn’t going to die, of course. Yet the topic of death had quite a powerful impact upon my mind. Maybe, this was an important wake-up call for me to pay attention to so that I might live a little longer and better.

While undergoing the most extreme and dark parts of this ordeal I was also reading about the ancient Egyptian book, the Amduat, which is all about the nocturnal cycle of the god Re as he makes passage through the underworld from the setting of the sun to the dawn of the next day. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun passed under the earth during the night. The sun god rode in his solar boat through the 12 gates and was assisted by many gods and the blessed dead to achieve his victorious daily emergence from the Gateway of Dawn. This daily cycle of the sun god was actually an important part of the ancient Egyptian funerary rites and represented the cosmogonic cycle in which the pharaoh played a very important part. This cosmogonic cycle was also analogous to the cycle of the hero and the cycle of initiation. Since five stages are associated with the cosmogonic cycle in the hero’s journey, there are only 17 stages that actually involve the full transformation of the hero. If we were to amplify those five stages to 12, then we would have an approximation to the Egyptian cosmogonic cycle. So, I have been focusing on each hour or stage of this cycle as I have been undergoing my recovery from sleep deprivation. It has been a very interesting synchronicity to assist my struggles to fully recover while reading this book.

There were times when I was reading this story of the sun god’s passage through the underworld as a meditation piece just before I went to bed that I imagined myself on the solar boat with the sun god, helping him to fight the forces of darkness. The whole process seemed like an analogy for my struggle to become well. Because sleep, dreams and death seem so connected in our minds and in our culture this mystic underworld journey seemed most appropriate to me. I could also consider this entire process to be transformative, representing for me not only a healing journey but also a kind of initiation. Now that I’m on the mend I’m quite certain that what I have gone through has been an initiation and a powerful spiritual awakening.

The book that I was reading was written by Andreas Schweizer and it has the title “The Sungod’s Journey Through the Netherworld: Reading the Ancient Egyptian Amduat.” I liked reading this book because the author really got deeply into the psychological impact of the underworld journey. Mr. Schweizer is something of a Jungian psychoanalyst so his interpretation of the Amduat is very much influenced by the teachings and writings of Carl Jung. If you are not into Carl Jung then the constant references to the collective unconscious would probably be quite annoying. Yet I found it quite helpful and insightful because I believe that the writings and teachings of Carl Jung are very important for occultists and practicing ritual magicians. You might disagree, but that is my opinion and I stand by it. Even though neurologists have pretty much debunked the concept of a collective unconscious, there still appears to be something about a cultural collective that has a powerful influence on those individuals living through it. I think the final word about the cultural collective, conscious or unconscious, has still to be written. I also believe that science will probably discover not only a psychic but perhaps even a neurological basis to the collective unconscious.

So, I’ve returned to the blog world and this is my first article in quite some time. I don’t know how frequent I will be posting new articles since the demands of my job, my health, and my relationship will take precedence over my writing, at least for the time being. I have quite a huge backlog of articles to write since there is been so much that has been going on in the electronic occult community that I would like to comment on and put forth my opinion. Some of these discussions may be a bit old, but that won’t stop me from writing about them. I hope to have an article written perhaps once a week or maybe once every two weeks. I’ll see how things work out and you will surely know the results.

Frater Barrabbas