Friday, June 6, 2014

Losing My Religion?

I have engaged in some further discussions about the topic of the Dark Night of Soul recently on Face Book. What has come out of this discussion is a more refined definition of the Dark Night of the Soul that magicians as well as mystics might experience. According to those who disagree with me it has to do with the aftermath of experiencing a powerful but momentary union with the Godhead, in all its glory and majesty. The resultant sense of loss after such an experience, also temporary, produces in the magician the archetypal Dark Night of the Soul. Tomas Stacewicz has responded to what I wrote with his own article, and you can find it here. I have also read with interest what he has proposed as comments on one of my Face Book status postings,

While I would never say that it is impossible for a magician and initiate to experience pain, darkness, doubt, fear and even despair while undergoing a powerful transformative initiation (in fact I have stated that this is very likely), I wouldn’t necessarily equate that intense experience with what a mystic undergoes through the Dark Night of the Soul. This is because a mystic nakedly approaches the Godhead by faith alone, whereas a magician is armed with faith based on the experience associated with magical experiences. There is also something decidedly masochistic about how a mystic deliberately prepares for this occurrence. Christianity does emphasize the suffering of Christ on the cross (particularly in Catholicism), and so a Christian mystic should also experience a similar level of suffering in order to be considered legitimate. Also, as I indicated in my article, the Dark Night of the Soul is nearly a constant companion for the mystic, but it doesn’t seem to be something habitual for the magician.

Tomas seems to have ignored the details that I presented in my article about how a monastic adherent seeks to undergo union with God and all that it entails. Based on what I have written, it makes more sense for mystics who have diminished and emptied themselves so that only the naked and unadorned psyche is still extent to have these kinds of experiences. How could worldly magicians who are still full functioning and participating in the mundane sphere be capable of having this kind of experience unless they themselves were reduced to nought?

I think that Tomas is actually engaging in a romantic association and a glorified identification with the mystic path, even though, unlike a mystic, he is still functioning in the world. He has a job, material possessions, property and social obligations. A true mystic would have eliminated everything in his life that might have interfered with achieving union with the Absolute. Tomas seems to believe that because he has experienced what he thinks is the archetypal Dark Night of the Soul that all such experiences must be the model and foundation for all other magicians. In fact he goes on to point out that experiencing the Dark Night of the Soul as he defines it represents an important mile-stone signifying one’s true level of development and achievement. In other words, if you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, then you couldn’t possibly be an adept, or for that matter, an initiate. He is quite adamant about this belief, and there seems to be no middle ground. Here are Tomas’ words to that effect.

However, my own experience [of the Dark Night of the Soul] and the experiences of other initiates proves beyond any doubt that it is possible and even constitutes a requirement to become a successful Magician or Adept.”

I suppose I should be insulted by what Tomas has said (since it excludes me from being a magician or even an initiate), but I won’t take it personally. I have the utmost respect and admiration for Tomas and I believe that he feels the same way about me. Despite the narrow definition that he has flatly proposed, we have agreed to disagree. Still, I felt it important to respond to some of his points to more clearly define the nature of my own tradition and magical perspective. Tomas seems to believe that I omit the importance of the Dark Night of the Soul in my magic because I define matter and spirit, and my pagan path, differently than he defines his spiritual path. He sees it as a difference in our paths, but I think that it is merely a difference in semantics.

While I agree that our paths are somewhat different, it is difficult for me to accept that they are that much different. My reply to Tomas is that he might be conflating the Dark Night of the Soul, which is a very specific phenomenon in Christian mysticism, with a difficult and particularly harsh transformative initiation. Of course, this is matter of opinion, but I felt that it would be constructive to contrast how we see reality and perhaps get a glimpse of the truth behind our passionate beliefs.

In my previous article I did state that painful transformations can and do occur, but if and when they occur they usually represent something specific about the individual and their own spiritual process, and they are not necessarily archetypal to all such experiences. The cycle of transformative initiation is something that is constantly repeated and it has lesser and greater cycles, so there would be a periodicity to experiencing intensely powerful and difficult changes regularly in the life-span of a magical initiate. While magical initiates follow the cycles of light and darkness and that this is feature of their path, the experience of darkness that a magician undergoes is not same as the Dark Night of the Soul. It is has neither the intensity nor the depth, and this is because it is just one phase of the initiatory cycle.

Another point that Tomas has made in his article is that modern pagans cling to the material world and are unable or unwilling to detach themselves from it in order to truly experience the manifested glory of the Godhead. Here are his words:

All spiritual paths and the followers thereof distance themselves from the material world to a certain extent, Theurgy as well as Mysticism

As I pointed out in my article, a modern pagan doesn’t differentiate between spirit and matter, rather they consider them to be fused into a holistic structure that can’t really be separated except through the artifice of the mind. Modern pagans don’t “cling” to the material world, they in fact embrace and fully live in it, and they celebrate its various wondrous mysteries and manifestations. We perceive that spirit and matter are conjoined in union so that life and the material reality becomes something sacramental. Thus, to a modern pagan, every living thing is a sacrament!

I also find the term “pagan reconstructionists” be somewhat misleading regarding my own beliefs and practices because as a modern pagan what I do has only the barest and rudimentary relationship to ancient pagans and the paganism of antiquity. Granted, there are pagan reconstructionists, but I am not one of them. That is why I call myself a Modern Pagan and not a reconstructionist. Even so, what I am doing is celebrating a religious tradition, although it is a very modern and newly developed one. Our work as Modern Pagans and Witches is not yet complete. In fact, we have only begun our spiritual and religious adventure. However, all magicians are more or less modern, since the cultural context and consciousness of even a few hundred years ago is irreparably lost to us.

Because I have equated the transformative cycle of initiation with that of the Hero’s Journey, I have also shown that a complete cycle includes both a descent and an ascent. The initiate undergoes a total shattering of the self and then a reconstruction and a reintegration. Such a process is often painful and difficult, perhaps even profoundly so. Still, the purpose of this cyclic process is for the initiate to psychically die and be reborn so that she might evolve and succeed in integrating the archetypal cosmogonic cycle with the temporal world - in other words, to achieve her individual and her collective destiny. In order to play a part in the destiny of the world, the magician initiate must be fully engaged with that world. It is also important to be balanced enough to avoid the extremes of material imprisonment or material corruption. Therefore, to be a magician and an initiate it is important to be able to function in the material world so that she might help to change and transform it. A magician is not detached from this world, in fact, the world in its spiritual and material manifestations is the great teacher, guide and even the harsh mistress of trials and life threatening challenges.

Tomas also discussed in his Face Book comments that the Dark Night of the Soul was analogous to losing one’s connection to the Godhead and then experiencing the darkness of doubt, loss of faith and the miseries associated with suddenly being bereft and abandoned. While I don’t doubt that this is a real phenomena that an initiate can experience, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is the same as the Dark Night of the Soul. The process of the transformative initiation cycle reaches its highest point when the initiate experiences a complete breakdown and shattering of the self. Would that kind of experience also produce the same feelings that one might mistakenly think is the Dark Night of the Soul? Certainly it would be painful, perhaps even agonizingly so, and it would seem that one is deserted, alone and without any advocates or assistance. As I have stated previously, when this happens in a successful initiatory cycle it is just one of many stages. So these feelings, however intense, quickly pass as the initiate experiences the next stage, which is union with the opposite and hidden dark-self and a complete revitalization and restoration.

When I have undergone this process I have experienced the pain of the breakdown and shattering of the self, but it is always followed by the joy and celebration of rebirth. I could indulge in the pain and attempt to prolong it, but I see no reason to do so. The natural cycle consists of a shattering and a breaking down of the psyche into the rudimentary parts, and then a corresponding powerful regeneration and rebirth. Why would I attempt to block or halt this natural process? I suspect that doing so would distort or even cripple the transformative process, making it like a regressive fall into madness. Yet the tendency to rebirth seems to be much too powerful to resist.

My case is that a magician experiences a total shattering and destruction of his psyche instead of experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul . He might believe that this experience is the Dark Night of the Soul if he is so romantically inclined. That is what I think is being described by initiates and magicians who believe that they have experienced this phenomenon. I don’t either doubt or dismiss what they have experienced, but I choose to frame it differently because to me the whole context of the experience is a magical process, and it is startlingly different from what a mystic undergoes. 

Still, the question remains that Tomas has pointed out in his Face Book discussions. Can one loose their connection to the Godhead and still be a magician? This statement reminds me of that song by REM “Losing My Religion.”

Consider this
Consider this, the hint of the century
Consider this, the slip
That brought me to my knees, failed
What if all these fantasies come
Flailing around
Now I've said too much” REM - “Losing My Religion” (part of the lyrics)

When it comes right down to it I suppose anything is possible in the various experiences and phenomena of magic; but losing one’s connection to the Godhead is a peculiar one, at least in my opinion. Let me explain why I think that this is so.

I have defined ritual magick as the methodology that incorporates the practice of godhead assumption as the fundamental state of consciousness for all magical work. So, that means that an initiate who performs magic is doing so under the aegis of his or her personal godhead. If that is a prerequisite then it would be difficult to lose connection to the greater Godhead and the One because the personal godhead is synonymous with the greater Godhead. There is no difference except in one’s mind and perceptions.

As the initiate progresses through the transformative processes of initiation, the apparent differences melt away and the initiate becomes more aware of the Godhead Within and the greater Godhead Without, and that they are one and the same. Is there any possibility that one might lose their connection with the personal Godhead? Perhaps in the beginning when it is a new experience which hasn’t become an integral part of the magician’s innate nature; but once it does, then any kind of spiritual disconnection is unlikely to occur. It wouldn’t be impossible, but such an occurrence would represent a catastrophic setback. It would be a total nullification of one’s entire initiatory process.

In all of the years that I have practiced ritual magick, I have never experienced this kind of loss of connection. I am aware of my inner godhead and often it resonates in a synchronous manner with the greater Godhead. Sometimes my mundane life has most of my attention and at other times my magical and pagan religious work are my primary focus. I also need to manage and balance living in the material world with being a pagan, witch and a ritual magician. I am focused on world events, thus making me worldly, but I also am keenly aware of magical and spiritual processes within and outside of me as well.

As a magician, I am seeking to be a master of both the material and spiritual world, since from my perspective, they are one and the same. What this means is that I experience a cycle of magical and mundane occurrences, and both of these occurrences are part of the overall process of conscious evolution. They are just part of a greater continuum that reaches from my unique individual experience and perception of life and its meaning all the way to the absolute levels of being. In my opinion, the road to self-mastery is where these different levels become unified into just one level all within my overall perception. Perhaps the one Tarot card that epitomizes that whole process to me is Atu V, the Hierophant.

Anyway, I have never been in a situation where I have not had, in some manner, a connection with the Godhead. For me it is only a matter of precedence, intensity and focus. I have never lost my “religion” since it is completely integral to my being. I know the nature of Spirit from my experiences with it, but I also know that it resides wholly and completely within matter, and the truth is that there is no distinction between them except in my mind. My beliefs and my faith are based on my experiences. From these experiences I seek to derive various maps, rules and doctrines that encapsulate what I have experienced. This is an evolving process, so what I hold to be true today will undoubtably change tomorrow. It is quite a different process than holding particular truths and doctrines based on faith alone, which is the starting point where the mystic begins his or her path.

Someday, perhaps in the future, I hope that I will be able to completely eliminate the distinction in my mind between spirit and matter, and when that happens, I will know what it is like to be a man and a god simultaneously. Until that time, I will continue my work and strive to realize the mystery and nature of the Godhead within me, and by outward projection, to know it in the world.

Frater Barrabbas

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Depression, Dark Night of the Soul and Magick

The last couple of days I have had some interesting conversations with some of the more insightful magicians who are my friends on Facebook. They are discussing the phenomenon of the Dark Night of the Soul, and that feelings of desolation, despair and a deep depression which can occur to anyone who is following the initiatory path of magick is also analogous to the classical definition of the mystical Dark Night of the Soul. There seems to be the consensus that all magicians at some point retire from the world (and in a sense, renounce it) and undergo the mystical rigors of the Dark Night of the Soul while seeking union with the One.

Strangely, I seem to be one of the few who finds issues with this kind of explanation and I have respectfully disagreed with those who have espoused this perspective. I think that it has more to do with a mystical approach to the Godhead than a magical approach, and there are also the issues of chronic or situational depression, isolation and despair that have really nothing to do with spiritual ascension. In clinical depression, removing oneself from the world is a common symptom and strong feelings are often replaced with a feeling of numbness, stasis or apathy.

The real question then is whether or not the iconic Dark Night of the Soul is real for mystics and magicians alike. Some have also questioned whether there is a difference between the two paths since they seem to lead to the same ultimate place. (I intend to answer these questions, hopefully once and for all, later in this article.)

Don’t get me wrong, since I am far more of a theurgist than a thaumaturgist, I do cultivate mystical experiences and encounters in the magical workings that I perform. However, there is a vast difference between having mystical experiences within a magical context and functioning as a mystic. They are not at all the same thing, in my opinion, and I believe that some magicians seem to confuse these two very different processes. Magicians can and do have mystical experiences, but they are not mystics. This is because a magician’s whole spiritual purpose is quite different than that of a mystic. This differentiation leads me to make some theological considerations regarding the context through which the Dark Night of the Soul occurs, both from a monotheistic and a pagan perspective.

From the perspective of the Abrahamic religious traditions (and also, to an extent, within Western metaphysical philosophy) humanity is in a fallen state and requires some kind of redemption in order to be spiritually fulfilled. The first step in finding redemption is to renounce the material world, since it’s the source of all that is fallen, separate and distinct from the Godhead. The physical world and all it contains is, therefore, unredeemed. Thus the seeker of spiritual redemption first realizes the fallen state of humanity and also the abject condition of the material world and thereby renounces it, but once this is done then he or she will undergo and experience probably the most difficult and bitter isolation imaginable in order to begin the process of achieving redemption. Let’s keep in mind that this is the particular mystical path to redemption (union with God) and not the general path to redemption (blessings and forgiveness of sins) open to all faithful adherents.

Yet in order to achieve redemption and salvation, mystics must transcend all that binds them to their physical lives, egocentric sentiments and their material circumstance in life in order to truly realize the hidden presence of the Godhead. Only by employing this extreme degree of self-sacrifice and world rejection is redemption possible, for without it, the seeker can’t cross the boundary that separates humanity from God, which is the sole objective. (Of course, there are other ways that the layperson can receive a certain kind of redemption for their faith, such as being redeemed through the intercession of Jesus Christ, nevertheless, the path of the mystic is the most onerous and difficult to undertake.)

However, in my opinion, a modern pagan has no need for any kind of redemption because he or she doesn’t subscribe to the belief that there is some kind of separation of Spirit and Matter, or that matter is in a fallen state along with humanity. Pagans don’t believe in original sin, so they don’t need to be redeemed. In fact the whole Lurian Qabalistic legacy doesn’t make a lot of sense to someone who is a modern pagan since the idea that spirits are trapped as “sparks” in the dross material world has the same kind of antinomian quality associated with theologies that reject the divine nature of the natural world (such as sects of Gnosticism, Fundamentalist Christianity and Neoplatonism). Since pagans embrace all material life and consider it to be sacred and imbued with spirit, then there is no need to somehow either elevate or reject matter.

To a modern pagan, Spirit and Matter are unified in emulation of the One, which is the nameless source of everything. Matter is imbued with consciousness and everything is therefore connected together. If one wishes to experience the divine, then nature is the principle place that one should focus their attention. I have found this philosophy to be an important remedy for the disease of duality that appears to plague most Western religious and philosophical systems. Also, there is no division between Deity and humanity, since the individual God/dess Within is also synonymous with the Cosmic Deity. If there is no fall and no original sin for modern pagans, nor any kind of division between the Godhead and humanity, then redemption is quite irrelevant and so is the Dark Night of the Soul. All that is required is for one to learn to see and experience the world as a holistic fusion of spirit, mind and matter, resolving itself into the One.  

The term “Dark Night of the Soul” was a phrase invented by the Spanish poet and Christian mystic St. John of the Cross and given to the title of a series of poems he wrote (La Noche Oscura del Alma) even though the process he describes was certainly not his invention. The poems he wrote depict the archetypal process or journey that he underwent when he sought a more perfect union with God. It is called the “Dark Night” because it symbolizes the ordeal that the soul encounters when in that intermediate state between renouncing the world and reaching the illuminating presence of the Deity. It is an experiential process that can and does happen for years, and in some documented cases it is only intermittently resolved. According to St. John of the Cross, this process has two stages; the first is a purification of the senses, and the second and more difficult, is the purification of the soul. The purpose for both of these ordeals is to eliminate all irrelevant and worldly things from the senses, mind and soul of the seeker and thereby to become worthy of union with the Absolute.

Purification of the senses is accomplished through a form of deprivation, where the mind and body are put in a situation where all sensory distractions are slowly attenuated until the life of the monk is one that is regulated by religious services, prayer, meditation, contemplation, work, and the basic needs of plain food and drink, rudimentary shelter, austere clothes, and little or no creature comforts whatsoever.

Purification of the soul is accomplished through strict forms of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and the enforcement of disciplines such as silence, isolation, self-humility, surrendering one’s self completely to God and the stripping away of all personal pride and self-definition. After a long period of this kind of rigorous discipline (and others even more inventive) the mind, and therefore the soul, will be purified of the distractions of the ego, personal vanity, and even one’s sense of identity. In the end, all that will remain is the nameless human being stripped of all extraneous things and naked and humbled before God. It is in such a state while waiting for the manifestation of God that the darkness reveals itself, filling the monk with doubt, fear, terrible and tormenting visions and nightmares, hopelessness, and the despair of failure - of being unworthy. If it were not for the brief but overpowering experience of union with God that uplifts and transforms the monk then this process would produce nothing but self-destruction. However, it is a deliberative process and also one that is voluntary.
From the standpoint of Christian mysticism, and even other forms of religious mysticism, it would seem that this process is quite relevant and necessary to achieve spiritual maturity and the realization of Spirit within and transcending all matter. However, there would also be a corresponding negation of the material world and its various trials and tribulations. Overcoming the Dark Night of the Soul would at least confer on the mystical seeker a certain amount of freedom from the travails of the world, since such a person would be functioning temporarily at a transcendent level of being. Such exalted states of consciousness are difficult to maintain even for someone living a secluded life in a monastery, so the Dark Night would be something that would periodically reoccur, again and again. According to the various writings of the Christian saints, including modern ones such as Mother Teresa, the Dark Night of the Soul is an almost perpetual companion for the mystical seeker.

However, would such a process as the Dark Night of the Soul that I have described above be something that a magician might encounter if he or she were following an initiatory path within a pagan-based system of ritual magick? That’s an important question, and I believe that it is definitely not part of the magician’s initiatory process - at least for a pagan. Why do I think that way? Is there a real distinction between the magician and the mystic? I have already dealt with this issue in a previous article, and you can find it here. There are other possibilities, such as a Christian magician who is following a path that alternates between the paths of being a magician and a mystic. I would find this confusing and perhaps even contradictory, but given the predilection that monotheistic religions have for antinomianism, it is possible.

A magician does have specific ordeals and issues that he or she must successfully resolve in order to achieve a stable level of spiritual maturity, but the Dark Night is not one of them. I have also written up what I consider to be the pitfalls of following the magical path and you can find that article here. However, this doesn’t really answer the question as to whether or not a magician can experience or even succumb to despair and internal darkness while undergoing what I have called transformative initiation.

Transformative initiation is not to be confused with ceremonial initiations that confer certain privileges and obligations on a member of an esoteric organization. A spiritual transformation is never something that is controlled or contrived by the magician, but it is something that can be triggered by specific magical activities. A spiritual transformation follows the pattern of the Hero’s Journey as associated with the seventeen stages of the cycle of transformation and the five stages of the cosmogonic cycle. I have written about these stages and how they typically impact someone who is undergoing them through a powerful spiritual transformation. While this is an archetypal process, it is also very specific to the development level and needs of the individual undergoing it. It is, in word, a rebirth, which is both archetypal and quite unique.

The cycle of transformative initiation consists of two halves. The first half of that cycle is the descent into the dark underworld of the deeper soul where the former egoic identity is shattered into fragments and later recombined into a completely new psychic structure. The successful completion of the supreme ordeal is where the initiate gains the vista of the cosmogonic cycle and realizes his place and role within it. These stages of shattering and reintegration are extremely difficult, painful and can produce the most extreme sensations of loss, despair, darkness and stasis for the initiate. However, these emotions are followed by joy, realization, ecstatic union and illumination. The second half of the initiatory process is the ascent out of the underworld and reintegration into the mundane and material world. However, the vision and the revitalized self are also reintegrated into the world and so the previous life of the initiate is now dead and replaced with a whole new perspective and life directive. Of course, that is the case when a transformative initiation is successful. There are cases where an unsuccessful transformation could produce regressive effects, but this is typically indicative of unresolved psychological issues.

If there is a possibility for darkness and despair then it will be experienced when the magician initiate is deep within the underworld, having experienced a complete shattering of the self into its most rudimentary parts. However, this period doesn’t last long and it soon replaced with the opposite feelings of joy and illumination. In this case, the underworld serves as a cocoon preparing one for transformation.  It is also possible that the magician initiate could experience a kind of depression after having successfully completed a very difficult spiritual transformation as a kind of “let down” after the fact – as if there should be something more. Yet even this state shouldn’t last long. Still, if a transformative initiation should fail then what I am saying here will not be what the initiate experiences. There are many possibilities, but the real issue here is whether or not the initiate is balanced and relatively normal, or whether he or she is additionally afflicted with some kind of psychological issue.

As you can see, the entire cycle of transformative initiation and its overarching purpose is to reintegrate the initiate with a renewed self-image and sense of purpose in the mundane world. According to the creed of ritual magick, the real work is to integrate Spirit and Matter, first within the self, and then in the world at large. Magicians are the teachers, initiators, leaders and social transformers, using a combination of religion, science and magic to change themselves and the world as a whole; to bring to fruition the cosmogonic design as coauthored by the Godhead. In other words, to fulfill their own destiny and the destiny of the whole world simultaneously. That objective can’t be fulfilled if the magician has renounced the material world. He or she must be immersed within it, but neither imprisoned nor corrupted by it.

Then there is the metaphorical beast of depression itself, and this is something that lies beyond the actual process of spiritual ascension or magical transformation. Whether the state of depression is situational or chronic, it can be quite a formidable opponent. People need to understand (if they don’t already) that depression is a medical condition. Even if this is an individual and personal ordeal, it has greater social and even psychological implications. I would never recommend to anyone that they not seek out proper help when faced with an insurmountable and unresolvable problem. I, myself, cannot speak to depression as a chronic malady, although I have experienced it in a situational context from time to time.

However, there are many ways of dealing with the malady of depression and the magician or mystic must deal with it (or any other psychological disorder) to achieve spiritual maturity. Chronic depression is a clinical disorder that can be mitigated with mood altering drugs and/or lifestyle modifications to balance and enhance brain chemistry; but situational depression sometimes requires the ability to detach oneself in order to accurately assess one’s situation and truly realize positive attributes of one’s circumstance.

I really do believe that there is always a way or a path that can lead one to a more healthy and happier mind-state, sometimes the difficulty is just finding it. I also have little pity for someone who persistently indulges in their internal pain and depression and doesn’t seek any kind of help, counsel or even some temporary diversion to drive the gloom from their mind. There is a stigma in our society that prejudges anyone who acknowledges psychological issues, so admitting them and seeking help can be intimidating. Still, this is one barrier that a person must overcome in order to find relief. You can find more information on chronic depression as a disease on the NAMI website here.

Sometimes we just need a pep talk from someone outside of our situation to get us out of a slump, or perhaps some coaching to remind us that we do have resources and abilities to change our lives. A loved one can remind us of why we are here or even a beloved pet can do this when we are assailed by doubt and despair. Still, we are not completely helpless nor are we without any means at our command to change our lives in such a manner as to give us joy and happiness. This must be realized as an important truth in order to motivate ourselves into finding a solution.

Obviously, this is a very difficult condition to overcome, but it can be conquered. In fact it must be conquered if we are going to achieve anything in our lives. That fact alone can often help someone overcome their situational depression, since doing nothing will ultimately achieve nothing except prolong that dark and seemingly endless night. Break up your life patterns, try something new, get moving and then see what happens. Often, having something important to do will help you forget that you are feeling blue.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said in his book, ‘The Crack-up,’ “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.

Frater Barrabbas

(With editing assistance an clarifications on depression from my lady, Grace.)