Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Singing in the pub: The Sheffield Carols

Last Friday night, I went to the other side of town and sang carols in a pub.
As my dear readers will know, I'm not at all keen on christianity. However, I do like a good sing, and I only learned last year that I live in a town that boasts a unique folk event, the Sheffield Carols.

These are not any old carols; they are traditional words, but sung to locally-written tunes, often unusual and complex, with four-part harmonies and so forth. The groups are very local, and pub-based. Each group writes its own tunes, and works them up to a carol season that starts  in November.  (http://www.localcarols.org.uk/sings.php )  

The Old Harrow hosts other folk traditions too, including Sword Dancing (http://www.oldharrow.co.uk/Sword-Dancing.php) . An idea of a carol session can be got at http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/sheffield-folk-carols-from-church-to-pub/6609.html and  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87PFoh9VJP8.

On Friday, the opening song was 'While Shepherds Watched', but sung to the tune of 'On Ilkley Moor Baht 'at'. Try it, it works! The song booklet, or 'Words', as it's called, boasts eleven versions of that carol, each with a different tune. The way the lines are repeated and sung has echoes of familiar, older forms, such as chorus lines in groups of 3, the first two lines the same, the third different, maybe splitting between male and female voices.

One of the inspiring things about this tradition is the way it mythologizes the local area. Tunes in the song sheets have local names, like Malin Bridge or Holmfirth Anthem, and more mysterious names like Spout Cottage or Egypt. If you'd been brought up singing that carol, you would never be able to pass Malin Bridge without thinking of the tune, the words, or maybe even some transcendent moment.

Such things charge the world with significance. Every bend of the river has a name, every town has a tune. It would be wonderful if we had a corpus of pagan/heathen songs of this quality to sing at the seasonal festivals. And communities, groups that cared enough to work them up into something worth showing off to the whole village/suburb. Choral singing is one of our species' most delightful skills, one of the bases of collective joy, and just the kind of thing we need to make life better in the straitened times to come.

Monday, 28 November 2011

USA travels


England to Texas:
It all started with a nightmare journey, the plane half an hour late out of Heathrow, leaving 1 hour and 20 minutes to get myconnecting flight at Chicago O'Hare. They kept us waiting in the first immigration queue for an hour, leaving just 20 minutes to get through the next 3 procedures. These were: get baggage from reclaim, get it security checked and then put it back on again. They didn't spare any farting about - the laptop had to come out of baggage, etc etc. Anyway, no time to recheck bag, had to run up to departure gate, where the excellent American Airlines staff sorted it for me. I was the last on board, 2 minutes before it left the ground. Deep joy, to be away from O'Hare's miserable incompetence and hostile security.

Staying at my friend's place in Smithville, a hamlet near Bastrop, central Texas, we had a heatwave. 80+F all week, and a plague of biting insects. One morning in the bathroom, I noticed a brown scorpion about 15 inches from my left foot. It looked dead, but I wasn't about to prod it and find out. My host later ascertained that it was indeed alive, and killed it. 
There were some great critters, though. Looking out on their back yard, I speculated that my hosts had placed an incredibly bright red plastic bird on the bird feeder. Then it flew off - the magnificent cardinal bird. And we saw a roadrunner, which looked almost as daft as its cartoon incarnation.

The land was suffering though. The ground was baked dustbowl-loose, the trees dead or dying, apparently the biggest drought in decades.

A few things really puzzle me about the US of A. Not the big things, like why anyone not in the top 10% of income ever votes Republican, when that is clearly not in their interest. Far be it from me to criticize that, we have the same problem in the UK. It's the small things that puzzle me. Like why are American plugs and sockets so flimsy? And the money: the nation which leads the world in being obsessed with the stuff, has a currency that looks like Monopoly money, but without the helpful colour-coding. 

The food can be puzzling too. Don't get me wrong - I love small diners, the preponderance of fresh seafood and many of the local delicacies (pecan-based in subtropical Texas). But the other day, I added a bunch of radishes to my snack purchase, and the supermarket checkout girl had no idea what they were. And the chocolate. It's been years since I was last disappointed by a Hershey bar, so I bought a pack of Hershey choc drops and managed to get half way down them before the taste of rancid milk burned through, and I had to ditch the rest. Why don't they fix that problem?

Therein lies one of the big secrets of capitalism's failure - the tyranny of brands. My lawyer friend, short of clients because he works alone, analyzed this for me in the context of the service you get from a law firm. One - it is driven by advertising; Two: only big firms can afford to advertise, Three: so they hire lots of poorly paid, poorly trained paralegals, and use a production line model. Result? the service they offer is the worst you can get. Stripped down, this formula is: big marketing = reduced quality. Even chocolate suffers.

And capitalism is supposed to give us choice and competition, leading to increased quality? What went wrong? Marketing, the favouring of growth over sustainable sizing, destroying the true free market. Solution? Break up all companies above a certain size? Restrict adverising? Maybe. It could hardly get any worse than it is. 

Texas to Atlanta:
Lest my curmudgeonly complaints seem biased and miserable, I shall assert that much about this trip has been wonderful.This includes, of course, friends, but also covers the basic decency of most Americans. And I had plenty of time to rewrite my novel, stalled for lack of publishing prospects, and revived by SiriusInk's avid interest.

Also the weather was gorgeous, once we'd escaped the heatwave. Flying, only the thinnest of haze over the patchwork quilt of fields, the shining river, the dam lake, the winding roads.
Now over a body of water with numerous inlets, the sand orange-pink in slanting afternoon light.

Now thick, evergreen and deciduous forest, watercourses snaking through it, no human structures as far as the eye can see. Then tiny settlements appear in clearings, then forest-ringed suburbs, Atlanta's townships. Then we cruise down through industrial units, still as surrounded by woods, down to the airport, downtown still invisible from this side of the plane.

Atlanta was two wonderful days, the afternoon of workshops that Ian Read (hypnosis) and I (breathwork) did, came off splendidly, great audience and a great end to the trip. All I need now is some luck to get me through the security hell of O'Hare on the way home.

Atlanta to England:
Yes, Chicago O'Hare managed to screw up again. There are no maps or information about what's going on in other terminals, so it's pot luck whether you get to your departure gate on time. Fortunately, we had time to spare, so the fact that they didn't bother reporting our flight on the boards of the terminal we were in had no effect, other than deepening our contempt for this place. 

Nil points, O'Hare.You are where one would stick the tube to give the world transport system an enema. Mark my words, dear friends: if you can possibly help it, never, ever get a connecting flight at Chicago O'Hare. They might make you stay there.


Friday, 25 November 2011

Raise a glass to the memory of Philip Harper

On Tuesday I learned of the death of my friend Philip Harper. He was a truly extraordinary man, who lived his life in the quest for higher consciousness. Having been born with cysteinosis, he knew his life would not be long, and he packed more into his twenty-something years than most people manage in twice that or more.

Right up to the end, he was still struggling: a few months ago, he ordered a very demanding esoteric study package.

His final blog entry:
'I have now been told that their are no medical treatments options left to cure my cancer. At this point you reflect on the fact that although they or us may think doctors are gods, they are not. Whats left, all the non-medical options and a will to live.'
For those who never had the privelege of knowing him, his blog is still up at http://ritualchaosmagic.blogspot.com/  . His website is also still visible at http://www.ritualchaosmagic.co.uk/  

There is a lot more that I could say about Phil, but I want to get this out into the world. 
So I raise a glass to a man who will be sorely missed, but who leaves us all a mighty example.

'Now the words of the High One
Are heard in the High One's hall.
... Hail, to those who hear them!'

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Crowned and Conquering Brat: Some reflections on nippled cups, Grab Bags and baby talk

It's time I had a proper rant.
Some of the things I dreamed about in the Playpower phase of my youth have come true, and I hate them.


Crowley's magick takes us through a succession of Aeons: first, there is Isis the Mother, the Pagan Aeon, in which we are ruled by the laws of Nature. Then comes Osiris the Father, the Aeon of monotheism and, most recently (since 1904 according to Crowley), the Aeon of Horus, the Crowned and Conquering Child, the beginning of the maturation of humanity beyond repressive laws.

Yes, much of the old world had to go, such as the sexual repression horror of Victorian society that still lingered on.

That was dealt a significant blow by the lifestyle rebellions of the 60s; the Aeon of Horus was still making sense.

Fourteen years ago, it still made sense: In Chaotopia! I prized neoteny, which, biologically speaking is when individuals reach sexual maturity without developing all the other adult characteristics of that species; this is of course a metaphor for continual openness to development.

That freedom to be anything is the crown and burden of humans – that we are creatures of chaos, that we don't really know what we are. That means we can become anything – our limitless freedom of thought produces Auschwitz, and Beethoven, James Joyce and Big Brother.

This open-endedness is such a deep part of our nature, so I stand by my defence of neoteny – minds that are flexible and adaptable are those which retain youthful characteristics.
 
But the dark side of the Aeon comes increasingly to the fore: every Aeon must go through this, the accumulation of dilution, compromise, corruption.


Am I the only person who is deeply sick of the following?

1. Adults using baby talk: The other week, I read a report of a magistrate doing the requisite telling-off thing to a woman described as 'heavily pregnant' for an alcohol related offence.

The admonishment actually went: 'You've got a baby in your tummy...'
Did she think the woman she was addressing was severely intellectually retarded? Aren't magistrates supposed to be mature and sensible members of the community? Apparently 'no' is the answer to both questions.

Even professionals like doctors and vets use the word 'poo', a perfectly suitable term for 8-year olds, before they get the hang of what social contexts demand 'excrement' or 'faeces' and which 'crap' or shit'. Suggestion: some Home Office guidelines on addressing adults of reasonable mental capacity; Doctor, I don't do 'poo'.

2. The description 'Grab Bag' for a slightly-too-large bag of crisps. Toddlers grab, adults 'pick up' or maybe 'seize'. Suggestion: replace term 'Grab bag' with 'Greed Bag'.

3. Those nipple-like caps that project out of the plastic tops of disposable coffee cups, which some people actually drink thro, like nipples, eschewing the aroma of the heavily-branded coffee they have just forked out for.

Maybe that ridiculous nipple resulted from the landmark US court case many years ago, in which a person actually successfully sued McDonalds for serving her the hot coffee with which she managed to scald her thighs. Such a plunge into Aeonic-scale legal idiocy cries out for commemoration, in our species' collective Darwin Awards, represented in the form of nippled coffee cups. Thus passes the glory of humankind.

So what is it all about, this infantilization? Why can't I jump on and off buses as they hang around in traffic? Is it because we can no longer stand to lose a few idiots a year in exchange for these delightful, trivial freedoms? Are we thereby a more compassionate society?

I don't think so; consider the following: A few months ago, the Powers That Be closed a gap in the central fence of the dual carriageway at the beginning of the Old Kent Road, so now people have to step over it. This stops the less mobile from nipping over, and makes it slightly more dangerous for those that do. Why? So some bureaucrat can sleep at night, knowing he's taken the advice of his lawyer.

That driver is insurance; this is what makes sense of the extreme anti-smoking notices, which in some places even appear out of doors these days, in defiance of any basic human sense, the effectively-infinite dilution of the open air. But the logic of it is that some person might sue, and sue successfully, someone who allows smoke to drift over their business premises. Bearing in mind the McDonalds decision, one has cause to fear what such stupidity is capable of.

The degraded philosophy underlying that decision gave us our current claim-and-blame culture, surely the epitome of infantilization, the attitude that the adult citizen is not responsible, that Baby needs protecting from Hirself every second of every day.

So what is the function of this sick cultural mutation, the cui bono? It's consumerism. We are being softened up for the endless destruction of meaning and quality and the attempt to replace it by buying unnecessary stuff which, until we learn better, we work long hours to acquire so we can display it to our neighbours. Status crap, in other words.

Dreary, isn't it? Humans could be so much better.

Monday, 10 October 2011

More books for the market stall

Hello everyone, I need to slim down my book collection, so am selling the following.
With some guideline prices, but any reasonable offer accepted, postage extra.

BOOKS
Stanton T Friedman - Top Secret / Majic. Hardback, first edition. £8
Ann Druffel - How to Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction, hardback £3
Ken Wilber - The Eye of Spirit, p/bk £5
David Madsen - Confessions of a Flesh-eater (complete with recipes) p/bk £2
Alex Constantine - Psychic Dictatorship in the USA p/bk £8
Robert Graham - Night Vision; The powers of darkness £10
Timothy Leary - Chaos and Cyber-Culture £7

And some CDs:

Freya Aswynn - Shades of Yggdrasil. Includes the notorious recording of Crowley's Leah Sublime £8

All other CDs £5
Stuart Davies - 16 Nudes, Live
Changes - Legends
Blacklight Braille - The Castle of the Northern Crown (2 copies)
" - Black Moon Selection
" - Songs From Moonlight Snow; the songs of Owen Knight
" - Dietles Tavern to Shadowland (2 copies)
" - Sailing Away
" - In a Dark Garden






Friday, 23 September 2011

Review of 'Reality' by Peter Kingsley

Reality, by Peter Kingsley
www.peterkingsley.org/Reality.html

A book the size of a housebrick-and-a-half, called 'Reality: now there's an author who's not lacking in confidence. In a nutshell? A 550 page commentary on two pre-Socratic 'philosophers', Parmenides and Empedocles, rooted in a passionate critique of the origins of so much of our culture and its limitations; origins that Kingsley claim lay in a hatchet-job done by Plato on the pre-Socratic mystical traditions.

This book was a roller coaster ride for me. Right from the start, it got on my tits, with its attitude of 'your life is a pile of shit because you are not enlightened', the same superior cosmic style that I reacted to so negatively when I first encountered mysticism in my teens.
...Even though I find the idea of a radical deconstruction – no, scratch that, a radical rejection – of normal reality absolutely irresistible.

In the language of this book, I still linger at the three-ways, with the ghosts who are not living fully. For so Kingsley would have us believe the pre-Socratic Italian-Greek teacher Parmenides was saying, in brief works which academics apparently usually take as the origins of logical thinking: Parmenides is no respecter of elites - that's where all of us stand, in relation to reality as it really is. Focusing on the origin of logic as the origin of our modern way of thinking is a totally deluded notion; Parmenides' words referred to an era 'before people learned how to use reasoning as a mask to disguise their terror of logic'.

He defends the 'terror of logic' with reference to Socrates who, he claims, was killed for making the Athenians feel like fools. He depicts Socrates as one of the last of a line of enquiry that used logic to demonstrate that ordinary thinking cannot produce a consistent model of the world, that everything we think hangs above an abyss of incoherence, 'aporia', the pathlessness in which Socrates left his dialogical victims.

Kingsley's reinterpretation of the pre-Socratic lineage is based on discoveries about the practice of incubation, a meditation conducted in underground chambers. Parmenides, it seems, was the leader of one such mystery school, in which the initiates gained visions, maybe meeting the underworld Goddess, Parmenides' interlocutor in the poem Kingsley takes as his core work.

In this poem, the Goddess cuts away all self-importance and smugness, dismantling the familiar world, stripping away all assumptions; 'and from this perfect reality that she (the Goddess) describes, there is no escape'.
This was when I realised the book was really speaking to me. Perhaps the subtlest and most lingering of my visions was exactly that - there is no escape, anywhere - what we see is, in a very important sense, what we get. My intuition calls it embeddedness.

I like the way Kingsley uses the term 'being'. Often people annoy me with that word - what right have we got to ascribe existence to one thing and not another? Well, Kingsley, in line with Parmenides' goddess, ascribes 'being' to it all; indivisible, bornless and endless. That I can get with.

Kingsley leads us through a version of the mystical solve et coagula. In this process, the face of the Goddess changes; at first, we met the unnamed Persephone, whose 'deceptive words' take our world apart, then later, as her deception becomes more total, more paradoxical, more complete, we encounter the seductive Aphrodite, whose charm hunts down and makes helpless the strongest man. But having gone through the death process, we have attained a kind of perspective that enables us to live in Aphrodite's lush garden of illusion without losing our minds again.

So what has this mystical cult really got to do with the history of Greek philosophy? Kingsley tells it as a gigantic selling-short: 'there was no way [people] were going to accept that the ultimate reality is whatever they see around them ... And so ... philosophers have worked their hardest for more than two thousand years to make his 'it' some kind of logical abstraction that exists somewhere else - on another level of reality.'

So he begins to insert the idea that reality is a seamless, unitary world, with no levels, only the delicious illusions of Aphrodite and the frightening truths of Persephone, both referring to the same universe.

The next sections, on Empedocles, take us into other territory, but there is still much mystical lore to be recovered. Empedocles' thought has had some strange descendents – his fanciful Aeonic model was taken far too seriously by the Gnostics, providing the basis for their profound hatred of the world and the flesh.

That is what tends to happen when initiatic writings fall into the hands of the priestly ascetics, the life-hating control freaks, and such perversions cannot necessarily be levelled against the original texts. But is it surprising that Empedocles' writings spawned toxic nonsense, when he spouted world-hating dualism like: 'Incarnation as human beings is, very specifically, a punishment for the daimon's failings'?

However, Kingsley uses Empedocles to bring in a vital new theme, which I'll return to: that Love and apparent unity is the basis for unconsciousness and automatic behaviour, but that Strife, the principle of separation, is on the side of truth.

The theme of the self-exhausting nature of logic is resumed with Zeno's paradoxes. We are taught them as shallow games, but Kingsley claims Zeno 'used logic in its truest sense, not to fortify or justify our commonsense view of reality, but to undermine it, destroy it.' He brings together Parmenides, Empedocles and Gorgias, the founder of the Sophists, whom Plato decried as shallow and irresponsible in that they merely held up mirrors to popular misconceptions.

Now Kingsley has got us ready to reveal the Platonic hatchet job on the mystery schools, the beginning of a cultural shift away from mysticism, perpetrated on the European world these last 2500 years. Athens invaded Lipora, one of the centres of the mystery tradition that included Parmenides, Empedocles and incubation; this was the political dimension. Plato's writings took care of the written evidence of the tradition, such as the poem of Parmenides Kingsley refers to throughout the book, by radically reinterpreting them, in ways which Kingsley demonstrates do not stand up well under close examination.

Plato elaborated Empedocles' simple cosmology, of everyday life and the Absolute bound inseparably together, into different levels, articulating the notion of transcendence, 'the need to get from here to there even though there is no there apart from here'.

The distortion of pre-Socratic texts continued, and continues still; Kingsley shows us how Empedocles' words were actually altered, in what he sees as a deliberate suppression of mystery traditions.

That criticism strikes a strong chord with me. Consider Plato's notion of a realm of divine forms, that aetherial library of cosmic designs. Where are they supposed to be? In the mind? Fair enough, and we all share them; they resemble Jung's archetypes of the collective unconscious, the ur-patterns of how we construct and perceive the world.

We can go further than that, and identify the structural relationships that are demonstrated by mathematics as ideal Forms too, patterns that are so deeply embedded in our minds that we see them everywhere we look.

However, I find very dubious the idea of actual other levels or planes of reality which contain these forms, levels which ascend step after step towards God. This is what the Neo-Platonists did with Plato's notion, and it is the basis of the Four Worlds of Renaissance Qabalah. And the philosophical underpinning of the empire of 'reason', its chief weapon in defeating the mystery traditions, and keeping them defeated.

This set of notions is what we have to thank for the rigmarole of Western occultism and, taken seriously, this book would be the death-knell of all that crock of neo-Platonist nonsense, that concoction of planes, rays and worlds. I for one would not miss it.

The way of awakening that Kingsley hints at throughout this book has some definite qualities in common with the Odian way, not least the sacrificial basis of full consciousness: 'the very act of becoming conscious is, itself, a process of destruction; of separation; of learning to die before we die.' [P435].

Concerning the illuminatory necessity of interrupting the Love principle with Strife, the author quotes a commentator describing the perfect sphere of love in Empedocles' cosmology – 'a state of crude and chaotic matter'; this sounds like Ymir, before Odin Vili and Ve carve a coherent universe out of him, before Strife gets on the case and produces some clarity.

It's not that there's anything wrong with love, but until we separate ourselves from our automatic impulses, which are ruled by love, by Aphrodite, we cannot become conscious. After we have achieved consciousness, then is time to return on the other arc of the cycle, into engagement with the world, into the rage of desire that Love generates.

Another feature of interest in this system [P289] is when Kingsley tells us that 'the ability to trap and bind successfully had a single name – metis'. Compare Odin's valknut, in its open and closed forms – it is the primary symbol of binding and loosing. One dimension of this dualism is in the technology of magical spells, in which we cause flow or stoppage. Another is in relation to the core nature of selfhood: on the Tree, Odin is torn apart, his self sacrificed, and out of that chaos new knowledge – the runes – and a new Self emerge. These are the two modes in which selfhood operates, the poles of solve et coagula, the cycle of dissolution and reintegration. On the one arc, we allow our selves to undo themselves; incubation, like some forms of sitting meditation, is a tool of the dissolution stage. The reintegration stage is automatic, but the nature of the visions and of the new self that emerges is influenced by our aspiration and knowledge.

Metis is usually translated as 'cunning', and this important divine attribute is examined in both Greek and Odian contexts in a fascinating paper 'Cunning intelligence in Norse myth; Loki, Odin and the limits of sovereignty', by Kevin J Wanner, which would require another essay to even begin to do justice to. (Wanner is at http://www.wmich.edu/religion/kevin_wanner.html )

Kingsley's words show up vividly the sometimes-problematic nature of the RHP/LHP distinction. On p185, he writes of this 'perfect, complete' reality: 'The only choice we have, our single real freedom, is to decide whether to participate in it consciously or be at its mercy.... '
This does at first reading seem like classic RHP as defined by Dr Flowers, along the lines of 'get with the cosmic programme, don't stand out' - but the next section shows us another dimension:
'The one option we have is to turn around and face, head-on, all the impulses that keep bombarding us and pushing us in every direction. By turning each impulse back on itself we are returning thought and perception consciously to their source.'
That sounds like a recipe for meditation, not for self-annihilation; more like someone fearlessly deconstructing all they appear to be, because they know there is something far deeper behind that anxious self.

Have we reached the source of the misunderstanding that seems to be at the root of much LHP/RHP dichotomy? Is it about where we draw the line, on this side of which is our free will, and on the other side of which the changes we label 'inevitable'?

There is another, and perhaps deeper, problem for the Odian seeker in this discourse. Kingsley criticizes seeking: '… if we manage to carry one particular search right through to the end, … we find ourselves straightaway at the beginning of another'.
To me, that's the core of the way. For Kingsley, it's bad: real Reality doesn't go anywhere, doesn't move. It's the opposite of the constant renewal of 'Seek the Mystery', this Absolute Reality.

On the surface of it, that's worrying; there is no progression, only perfection, always and forever. But the process Kingsley recommends is nothing but an increase in consciousness, and if that isn't what the Odian way is about, I don't know what is. And maybe the above idea is again a misunderstanding: the sense of a perfect universe comes at the culmination of a process, which will certainly feel like a journey. On arriving, one may feel that: 'There is no transcendental reality to get away to' (p288).
Now that is a notion I can get with – eliminate all those other levels, all those half-hearted semi-paradises, and let the self dismantle itself into bare, immediate presence. How can there be anywhere to go to from that place?

But we return, and then movement resumes. It may not ever feel as real again, that movement, but it doesn't mean we are not passionately engaged in changing the world to the best of our ability; even Kingsley admits his illuminated Greeks were engaged in political intrigue: the perspective of a motionless, eternal world has not paralyzed their will. They return from eternity and take up their work in the world again.

In the end, I can't find any serious fault with this book. Reservations, yes; his style has been described (by Duncan Barford) as 'arch', which fits perfectly; it definitely feels like he is talking down to his reader. This puts me off his other works, one of which I've been emphatically recommended by the friend who passed this volume on to me. I don't think I'll ever like his style, and it may irritate you too. But I have to recommend this book, because he has such vitally important things to say.

I'll leave you with a rallying cry from P497:
'Trying to escape from our own civilization can offer no real solution. What now is needed more than anything else is to penetrate to the roots of this western world and release the wisdom that has been waiting there for so long.'

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Chap-ism: an appreciation.

Seldom have I ever been accused of sartorial elegance, and most of those few occasions have fallen in the last year, since I decided I was just too old to go on getting away with being... casual? louche?... no, just plain scruffy.

Not that I was ever really scruffy - at least I always shaved. The current fashion, for neither having a beard nor not, gives us the unedifying spectacle of 50-something Oxbridge academics desperate to deny their age and just ending up looking like they could use a bath; but I have had a chequered relationship with the fashions that ran alongside my life.

As a 60s teen I was a proto-punk anarchist, a bright soft tie worn as a headband in ironical reference to hippie style. I wore my hair down to my shoulders and felt I was part of a youth vanguard. A year later I cut it short, when I woke up to the fact that longhairs were not guaranteed to espouse radical, countercultural ideas, and so the longhair gesture was meaningless.

In the 70s I sported a leather flying jacket and, yes, for one season, a moustache. My 80s garb was an extension of the same basic style. In the 90s I started dressing up more - suits and military fetish for special occasions - but my everyday wear was, frankly, dull, with the curious dullness of stylistic indecision.

What happens when we have no idea what our appearance might mean? I sit in a bar and people look lost, at sea in images, young men, 20 something, fuzz of stubble, corporate clothes that refuse to exert a sexual male identity... they are blurred, out of focus, these metrosexuals in the pseudo-community of their Gap clothes.

Not to mention the fashion victim teens who wear their corporate hoods up in blazing heat, even when there are no security cameras to hide ostentatiously from... let's not even step into that style abyss.

Can we escape from the gravity well of corporate clothing boredom? What might it be like to dress in a non-corporate fashion?

We have to look to subcultures for answers to that sort of question; enter The Chap, http://www.thechap.net/

A Chap (and the description is not male-restricted) adopts a 1940s style, only barely modified at all for contemporary sensibilities, and - important distinction, this – not just for special occasions, but every day.

This makes sense on a number of levels. For instance, consider layers, and the British climate. That old style is well adapted to the world of energy shortages which we shall all need to get used to. We walk out, we have great hats and overcoats. We step into a heated room, we remove scarf, gloves, hat, overcoat. The room gets warmer, we remove the jacket. We still have a waistcoat or a sleeveless pullover on over the shirt.

This is not only intelligent but massively more stylish than anything current hoodie-sports shoes-jeans fashion can possibly offer.

And consider self-reliance: traditional clothes can be repaired, if not too badly damaged. We keep shoes clean and stretched with shoe tree, preserving both fabric and appearance. We throw less away. We look better than the most expensively-attired name-brand victim, and we got most of it from charity shops.

Bugger... That was the secret.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Review - Is There Life After Death? The extraordinary science of what happens when we die. By Anthony Peake,

This book was thrust into my hands by a fellow magician, because she'd found it interesting and thought it might be my kind of thing. I think the author would have me believe that this was significant, a signal from my Higher Self who reincarnates endlessly into the same body, the same life-cycle, again and again.

For this is Peake's thesis - that we are each in one of the runs of our own personal, solipsistic, endless Groundhog Day. These repeats are an Eternal Return that differs only in tiny or great differences that increase with the degree of experience of the re-incarnating Self.

This book follows a pattern familiar from the science-mystic fringe: introduce a wacky and exciting idea, back it up with an unusual stretch of interpretation from quantum physics, then proceed to contrast 'Western thought' unfavourably with some interpretation of Eastern mysticism.

Peake kicks off with a dubious leap from the double slit experiment and the Copenhagen Interpretation, about which he writes one or two things few physicists would agree with.

Then it improves, with a good rundown of Bohm's Hidden Variable interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Then he presents the fascinating theory that input from our senses is 'buffered' until the buffer is full then released to consciousness, a sort of quantization of memory into packets. Which generally cannot be re-accessed - we are not talking about normal memory here, but the vivid memory of flashbacks, where a specific memory swamps consciousness.

Then he moves on to Pribram's holographic theory: (p90)
'In the same way that the image on a holographic photographic plate is a swirl of blurs and fuzziness, so it is with the universe "out there'. It is only when the lens of the brain, acting as a laser light on a holographic plate, brings out the three-dimensional image that the universe comes into being.'

He quotes Pribram:
'Maybe reality isn't what we see with our eyes. If we did not have that lens - the mathematics performed by our brain - maybe we would know a world organized in the frequency domain. No space, no time, just events.'
That is a stirring thought, and reminds me of how, in Northern myth, that drama is the primordial giant Ymir sacrificed by Odin and his two brothers to generate a comprehensible universe.

Then we're into Oliver Sacks-like meditations on what the weird zones of human neurology tell us about ourselves.

One of the unavoidable problems with a solipsism as encompassing as the one he seems to embrace is: How do you argue from the contents of your universe? How can I use quantum physics ideas, or neurological findings, to argue my position, when these sciences don't reflect any objective reality?

The idea that raw reality might have 'No space, no time, just events.', and that everything else is something we construct, is a degree of solipsism I can get with - the Woden-Vili-Ve in us hacks a (fairly) coherent universe from that timeless, stagnant Ymir confusion - but there is an Ymir there in the first place: solipsists tend to throw the Ymir of objective existence out with the universe we make.
He doesn't deal with this, doesn't justify his particular blend of facts from one direction and factless depths of solipsistic speculation on the other.

However, there is something very tempting about this idea. And it falls into that vast category of ideas which grow from that basic sense that there is something deeply, disturbingly wrong in our common grasp of what is happening in the world.

So why don't I 'convert' wholeheartedly to the belief system here?
Because, first, it violates Occams Razor, by sewing together a bunch of speculative ideas; and second, because I'm a constitutional pessimist, and this is one of those interpretations of the universe that attempts to rescue some degree of human-heartedness to what seems an indifferent or even hostile set of physical conditions. I suppose it succeeds in that, but it does seem rather harsh that we don't know that we are immortal. Surely if we're running the multiversal show, we would overcome that painful illusion?

I shall remain haunted by the core idea in this book, of serial virtual reincarnation, because it does explain a lot. Would I recommend the book? Yes, because it will give you an itch for the mystery.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Adventures in Ireland 2: The pilgrim's mountain, Irish hyperreality and the island sanctuary

On Lughnasadh Sunday we walked up Croaghpatrick, the mountain from which the notorious St Patrick is supposed to have banished the snakes from Ireland ('What's that guy got against reptiles anyway?'). Over 15,000 people (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8204987.stm ) go up every year on that one day, and you can believe it – the long track is as busy as the Old Kent Road. It was a pretty unpleasant climb, especially after we ascended into the fog and rain, but an incredible spectacle: people of all ages and dress styles, being helpful towards each other. An old man with two sticks fell in front of me, and people gathered round to help him up, I got one of his sticks back to him, and he proceeded another three steps before falling again. And it didn't stint on weirdness: up on the summit, in fog, a speaker system blared out Mass and the confession queue snaked up to the tiny stone church. On the way back down I saw a little old man in suit and tie and brogues, strolling up the scree-strewn path as if it was just another trip to Mass in his Sunday best. Back down and soaked to the skin after a four hour round trip, we drank comforting stout in the pub at the foot of the track.

We stopped for a meal on the way back, a hotel in Westport, the nearest town to Croaghpatrick. Donal came out with a perfect description of Irish tourist hyperreality: 'This place is a bit diddly-I’.

The next day was the Bonniconlon Agricultural Show, the local highlight of the year. It was fun, and definitely not diddley-I – sheepdog trials, horse jumping, cattle, sheep, goats, boxty to eat, what looked like the remains of a turf turning demo, a dog show, fairground rides for kids, water-collecting and field drainage systems, turf-stripping machines, a sheaf throwing contest which went on all afternoon, a fiercely anti-British IRA stall, and even a stress-relief masseuse from the local town who was having to work hard to convince the locals of the benefits of her craft.

The final couple of days we spent around the neolithic burial complex of Loughcrew Cairns, recommended to us as the less touristy version of the Boyne Valley passage graves. Not fancying another satnav adventure, we navigated map in hand to the general area, then disappeared into the maze of local roads. Wondering where we were going to stay the night, we suddenly spotted by the road a sign saying ‘Parking and Camping, open till 6’. It was 6.20, and the gate was still open, so we pull in and asked – and yes, not only did we have a place for our tent tonight but we’re right at the foot of the Slieve na Calliagh, the Hill of the Sorceress, the range of hills that start dramatically up out of a gently rolling landscape, topped by the Loughcrew Cairns.

So we sat by our tent, cooking and eating, watching the poachers go out a few minutes after the staff left the buildings, two lads on a quad bike, one of them with a shotgun. Some time and a few detonations later, they returned with a bulging bag. We walked up the main hill, where the most impressive tombs are, and saw the best sunset I’ve ever seen bar none – like a grid of red-hot steel mesh or flowing molten metal stretched across the sky.

The next day was for walking and magic. My Statement of Intent was: To experience ecstasy, to be taken out of myself.
Which I was.

Back in Britain, the following weekend was the riots. I thought of the crannog we saw in Lough Talt, a tiny artificial island sticking up from the water. It was some Bronze Age family's sanctuary from their bandit neighbours, complete with secret steps under the water level, the route known only to the kin who built it. Imagine, what a palaver to go through, to avoid robbery of your scarce and tiny resources – a few scrawny animals, on a pile of rocks. That's what life can be like when times are hard and there's no effective law.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Adventures in Ireland 1: Localism and the satnav; bathing in slime

I've now had my phone (destroyed by Irish rain) repaired, have devirused the main computer, welcomed another laptop into our home and taught it the house rules, had the car fixed following the breakdown it politely waited for us to get back from Holyhead to have, and fixed the shelf that fell off the wall in the middle of the night we arrived back. Yes, to a Ragnorok of household appliances. So now I can spend time writing my blog.

Stuck in Dublin traffic we have time to discover our satnav's map is not just Britain, but the British Isles, so we use it to get out of Dublin and on our way to County Mayo. By nightfall, we are in Ballina, and, flushed with our earlier success, attempt to get the machine to direct us to Bonniconlan, the nearest village to the hamlet our friend Donal lives in. Judy tries various spellings (we're already alerted to the range of spellings employed as Gaelic turns into English), but the device is having none of it. So we try 'Knockroe', the name of the actual hamlet. The satnav offers us a few choices this time, one of which is in Co Mayo, in the vicinity of Ballina. Hoorah,we think, and drive on, to a suburb of Ballina with long front gardens and bungalows. I text Donal: We're in Knockroe. The text returns immediately: You are not.

So Donal directs us to Bunnyconnellan (another spelling), where he comes and fetches us to Knockroe. The third Knockroe we'd had anything to do with today (I drew a discreet veil over the first).

This Knockroe turns out to be about 5 houses on a winding lane, one step up from a farm track. I ask him how people find Knockroe. His reply is the purest example of localism I've ever heard: ‘If you don’t know how to find Knockroe, you’ve probably no business being here.’

Our valuation of local knowledge over electronic deepens a couple of days later. Having been recommended the slimy experience of bathing in seaweed, we set out early for seaside town Inniscrone. The satnav takes us on rougher and rougher tracks, two stages at least worse than the road through Knockroe, until I'm starting to worry about the car making it in one piece. The terrain changes from small roads through woodland to open sections of bog, scarred by deep turf-digging trenches. I imagine we will emerge from this, onto a proper road, but suddenly the satnav put up its orange flag, and announces 'We have reached our destination'. We are at a crossroads between two potholed mud tracks with peat bog as far as the eye can see. The Ox Mountains looks twice as near as they should, and the only human activity visible is a few figures on the distant horizon doing something with a JCB. We get out and look round, imagining what it would be like to call the breakdown service here, then get back in and retrace our course.

We get to Inniscrone eventually, after a second false pass. We'd promised to change money for Donal, only to discover Inishcrone hasn't got a bank. So, back to Ballina, by which time we're ready for lunch. We shop, get Euros and finally make it to the Enniscrone Seaweed Baths.
What an experience. Each private room has a cedarwood steam box, and a bath which delivers hot seawater and is already full of seaweed and seaweed extract, cooked from vegetation gathered that day. It's Edwardian, very steam punk, and no pun. You steam, you soak, you please yourselves for as long as you like, floating in the slime. Highly recommended. Oh yes, it's good for you too.

Back at Donal's, the satnav tale goes down well. He takes us out on one of his walks, deep in Kilbride Bog, where we'd been misled to that afternoon, to a wilderness as wild as it gets in these islands.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Review of 'Exhale: an Overview of Breathwork' by Gunnel Minett

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Exhale-Overview-Breathwork-Gunnel-Minett/dp/0863154646

I first experienced connected breathwork at a workshop led by Ramsay Dukes at the 1991 IOT World Seminars in Lockenhaus, Austria. It was such an impressive experience, that 20 minutes of breathing differently, that I went home determined to learn how to do it.

I bought the only books available at the time - 'Rebirthing in the New Age' (Yes; none of us is innocent) by Leonard Orr and Sondra Ray, and 'Vivation - the Science of Enjoying the Whole of Your Life', by Jim Leonard and Phil Laut.

These were the in-house manuals of Rebirthing*, and its lineal descendant Vivation. The other great lineage of connected breathwork descends from Stanislav Grof, whose fascinating books do not tell you anything about how to do breathwork, so those two books really were the only ones at that time.

A few more books have come out since then (see my website under 'Breathwork Resources' for a brief list), and I shall retrospectively review some of them over the next year; this helps me to clarify to myself what still needs saying about breathwork, which in turn will influence what I write in my next breathwork book.

The first chapter, The Importance of the Breath, reviews what most people do not know about how important breathing is. Links are made between conscious subjective experience and physiological processes. Minett explains the book's title - the importance of exhalation is not only expel CO2; defensive muscle tension prevents us exhaling as deeply as we can: 'How we exhale shows how willing we are to trust what happens to us and go with the flow of life.'

We learn an astonishing statistic - 60% of all emergency ambulance rides in USA's largest cities involve hyperventilation or other breathing disorders.

Chapter 2, The Power of the Breath, is a historical overview, a rich compendium of techniques, including a terrific review of the role of breath in magical/meditative practices and soul lore, spanning the Athos island monks to the !Kung and many other peoples who are still living traditionally.

Good survey of the psychotherapeutic background to breathwork, the first time I've come across a discussion of Reich and 'body psychotherapy' in a breathwork book, and the author correlates the symptoms of kundalini arising with possible physiological mechanisms. She also covers the Buteyko method for treating asthma, another first in any breathwork book I've seen.

All these things help contextualize BW, which in turn enables us to understand what we are doing with it. We have come quite a way since Orr, Ray, Laut and Leonard in understanding what is actually happening in a breathwork session.

Chapter 3, Healing and the Breath, has an excellent run-down on the physiology of breathing, the best I’ve seen in a breathwork book. It’s good to have, for instance, something on why alternate nostril breathing works, looking into the physiology of the ida-pingala system.

She continues into modern breathwork, the two lineages of Leonard Orr and Stanislav and Christina Grof. Orr's stuff is contaminated with a daft immortalism, which Minett critiqued in a recent article for the free online magazine Breathwork News (http://www.breathwork.be/), so I'm a bit surprised she has any time for such nonsense in this book.

It gets worse, though: she shows a seriously uncritical eye when it comes to things which claim to be 'spiritual'. That word blinds people, even intelligent people, to the toxicity of the teachings of the likes of 'Breatharian' 'Jasmuheen'. This person, who somehow remains out of jail whilst encouraging fatal eating disorders with the lie that people can live without eating, represents the point where breathing philosophies impact with the Darwin award.

Mentioning such people on the same page as the wonderful healing science and magic of breathwork brings the latter into disrepute, for thoroughly understandable reasons. Nobody should be asked to take seriously such rubbish on their way to healing.

There are a couple of other problematic statements. On p152 we are told that ‘some foodstuffs can cause autism in children’ – whilst there is some promising research going on in this area, this is a bit of a scattershot statement for such a subtle and complex field.
She also mentions a bizarre-sounding theory of how trauma is stored, to take into account the existence of pre-birth memories: in ‘chemicals’, stored ‘anywhere in the body’. This may be true, but needs much more detail before we can take it on as a working theory.

She makes interesting points about hyperventilation, which of course sits right next to the mechanisms by which breathwork leads to an extraordinary state of consciousness (ESC). She also sounds confused over the hyperventilation (HV) vs superventilation (SV) debate: surely they’re the same physiological thing, in different contexts? You have assistance, and a healing frame for the experience with SV, but not with HV.

There's an excellent guide to the physiological and emotional changes experienced in giving birth, and being born, and a fine appreciation of the placebo effect, putting it in its proper place as a sign of the chief mechanism of healing, the body’s own. This contrasts vividly with the irritation shown by drug trial people against that wonderful effect, showing just how little pharmaceutical companies care about patient health.

There's also a good overview of the 3-brain notion, reptile-mammal-neocortex, the fourth zone of the frontal lobes, and what she treats as a 5th zone, the heart-nerves. She has an interesting interpretation of the function of these neurons: ‘The heart selects the information that corresponds best with the inner world and interprets it to fit our individual world view’.

There are lots of very interesting exercises, which I’m still trying out. Keenly - since Minett points out that the brain expands and contracts as we breathe, so that faster and more intense breath gives the brain a massage!.

She examines the role of breathwork alongside conventional approaches, and here falls into that weak PoMo argument that ‘there is a growing recognition that what we call ‘objective facts’ in reality are only mental constructions’.
For a demolition of such attitudes, see my review of Alan Sokal's 'Beyond the Hoax',http://chaotopia-dave.blogspot.com/2010/11/magical-thinking-science-and.html.

The problem she’s addressing is of course our old enemy parascience, the talking of science-like religious drivel by scientists, the shallow triumphalism of scientists blundering into areas science is not competent to address, and then aggressively defending their occupation of these territories with straw-man arguments.

We don't need some hippy-dippy paradigm shift in order to fight parascience – all we need is clear thinking. Such arguments as we find here merely ally the book with worldviews which are being discredited, weakening breathwork’s credibility, its status as an objectively effective technique.

The final chapter, The Future of Breathwork, contains a plea to bring more challenge, meaning and stimulation into the over-controlled lives of adolescents, suggesting initiation rituals. This sounds like a great idea, but who would run such schemes, and what belief-system would over-arch it all? In the absence of a universally-accepted religion (for which I'm grateful) I can only imagine such a thing happening in small tribe-sized communities.

So where is this book in the multiverse of breathwork?
It is very much a book about the 'spiritual' dimensions of our craft. I use quote marks because spirituality is an extremely problematic term in itself: for a start, check Watkins Bookshop's usage (see blog April 2011); clearly, it can mean many things, and has a span which reaches from the sublime to the embarassingly bad.

Still, we probably need the word; I just prefer not to use it, when I can find a less devalued (or simply a clearer) alternative term.

This is a good book, but contaminated with newage wishful thinking. We are judged by the company we keep, and some of the stuff around breathwork must put off those who are not naturally inclined to faith, the god-minus genotypes amongst us.

For instance, I'm very glad I didn't read Jim Morningstar's intro before asking for this book as a Yule gift, because I'd have missed a worthwhile read, and it is really not necessary to go along with Mr Morningstar's personal faith in a benign universe to get good things from either breathwork or this book.

As for the new age, Minett doesn’t mention the most significant criticism of it, that it is driven by consumerism, tainted at core by the shallowest philosophy mankind has ever devised. It rests on a kind of spiritual tourism, a consumption of novelty. If spirituality means anything worthwhile at all, that value lies at the opposite pole to the new age.

Yes, breathwork needs to grow up and leave behind this religious guff: we have a wonderful set of techniques for healing, the exploration of higher consciousness and its magical properties, and we don't need bargain-basement metaphysics to make it work.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, but probably only to completist breathwork coaches who want a decent but pricey review of the field. The £20 price tag will put most off; it's a nicely produced, stout paperback with glossy paper, but not so lavish as to justify such a high price.

* Not to be confused with various psychodramatic rebirth techniques involving pushing and lubricant gel.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Two Energy Magic workshops

Two posts in a day - I'm catching up, not setting a new pace for myself!

The pilgrimage attitude: I bring something. This is the opposite of tourism, where I go to consume something, the something being ‘differentness’. (All travellers – read Hakim Bey’s ‘Overcoming Tourism’, at http://hermetic.com/bey/tourism.html )

So I went on a ridiculously early flight to my Austrian workshop. Well, 7.15 is not in itself ridiculously early but factor in the 'arrive 2 hours early' acrobatics of current security and the fact that London's underground does not run all night, I had to get up at 3 in order to get 2 night buses.

But at least it wasn’t Ryanair - no food ban, the flight is not packed (with people who’ve never been on Ryanair before), and the seats have pockets in the back for your books. There is no sense that you're a victim lured onto one of their flights to be bamboozled, tricked, and ripped off. And for no difference in price either.

So I'm definitely not complaining. I decided to enjoy the sleeplessness amidst the crumbling charms of Schloss Limberg, and presented a workshop on Energy Magic. People loved it: We did the breath, felt the energy, went outside to feel it in the forest, and as we came back in, there was the most almighty crack of thunder and the heavens opened.

That's not the first time I've seen such a thing, and I regaled the participants with the tale of a storm in upstate New York that our chaotron seemed to kick off. The flimsy wall of the seminar room let water in, and we had to staunch the flow with sheets before we moved on to doing healing with the energy.

Three people lay down, other sat or stood while we did healing on them. I succeeded in following two of them up over the next couple of weeks, and both healings were sustained, not mere temporary good feelings.

My next presentation was at Pendle Hill Pagan Camp. The success of this session came as a bit of a surprise, because some of the people who turned up didn't seem to want to do any work. However those who did carried it well, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. Two healings I’m aware of happened, one of the recipients of which I managed to sustain contact with.

Her experience was quite far from any of the healings I've reported on these pages - more like a deep trance leading to emotional and spiritual resolution; more like the kind of thing I'm familiar with as a breathwork coach.
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The dimensions of energy work continue to unfold; there is plenty to do in seeking this mystery.

Heavens to Murgatroyd exhibition - some thoughts

http://newsevents.arts.ac.uk/event/heavens-to-murgatroyd/

I know, the exhibition's been closed for weeks, so why am I bothering reviewing it? Well, certain features of this show and how it portrayed itself stuck in my throat, so here goes.

First, check out the above, still-live link, the description of this exhibition - or just take my word for how grand it all sounds.

Remember a day when art didn't need a slew of justification, an ocean of context, a swaying stack of theories? And I had reservations about the title - it's the expression of the 50s cartoon character Snagglepus. Wikipedia lists no magical dimensions to this pink lion, so unless the presenters of this show have some personal thing going about the magic of Snagglepuss, this title strikes me as shallow and lazy.

Still, we're all acrobats of the double- and triple-bluff these PoMo days, so we went anyway; the whole shtick promised a real breakout thing.

- but 8 pieces? And the 'installation' that we are told 'will wrap the exterior of the Arts Gallery' turns out to be a poster, admittedly a gigantic one, in the window.

I wasn't going to bother reviewing this little show. After all, I've seen more beautiful, freaky postmodern art objects on a single IOT altar. Many times.

And this is what bothered me and made me write this: the objects on those altars were contextualized to magic, whereas it seemed to me that the objects in this show didn't engage at all with the actual functions of either magic or mysticism; neither did they challenge the consensus ghettoization of magical thinking. This exhibition felt as if it was embarassed by its association with such flaky notions, choosing instead to hide behind the skirts of this glittering, empty culture in order to pay the rent.

This is a kind of cultural imperialism, like explorers arriving at an isolated village and carting away all the cult objects to show back in WestCiv; these artists have appropriated a style - mystery - and isolated it from its meaning, so they can sell it. Or maybe more that they've visited a ghetto, appropriated the style of the original, vital artwork and then gone away and made a fashion statement out of it, its shallowness reflected in the choice of the show's name.

So what could artists be doing with magic? Maybe try engaging with it a bit more; that engagement would surely show through in your theory-blurbs.

Or take a lesson from artists who have managed the interface between art and magic much more interestingly, such as the artist known as Snakebeings (http://www.snakebeings.co.nz/index_2.php ). He approaches the issue from the other end - with a starting point of Catholic magic as found in Compostela, he constructed strange engines for belief, theurgy and divination: here, the irony did not overbalance the seriousness of the questions the pieces asked. This is an artist who is moved and maybe conflicted about magic, not limply theoretical.

Perhaps the most telling exchange was the one my lover had with the woman who was minding the exhibits; she asked her why the Dream Machine in the corner wasn't working. The reply was along the lines of 'the artist thought it was appropriate that it degenerated over time'.
Oh dear, what sad, pretentious hippy crap to justify laziness. Not good enough! Try harder!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Robert Leihy's Trip Manual

Robert Leihy's Trip Manual
http://psychedelicpsychology.org/

I posted my review of 'Psychedelic Information Theory' on Amazon, and, having retrospectively bemoaned the lack of non-dogmatic trip manuals in that review, I was pointed at this one by Mr Leihy.

He has some very worthwhile things to say about the psychedelic experience. One of them is his contrasting of the rational mind with a 'spontaneous thought generator' that generates new content in psychedelic experience.

This is like a concretization of the functions Kent (Psychedelic Information Theory) ascribes to spontaneous self-organization of the subunits that make up top-down consciousness, after the top-down control has been disrupted by psychedelics.

He goes on to pull together the rational mind and the spontaneous thought generator into a single system, in which both new psychedelic content and rational thought are 'output from the spontaneous thought generator ... Rational thoughts pop up just like any other spontaneous thoughts.'

He has an admirably sane, anti-dogmatic approach to cosmic visions:
'In my own humble opinion, the overall cosmic concept that existence is a complete mystery releases a person from the controversy over which cosmic answers to consider as absolute truths.'

And:
'...all of the various sometimes-conflicting “answers” to cosmic questions are really improvable assumptions. The mysteries of spirit, causation, free will, and the nature of being remain completely intact even after a religious experience.'
Now that's what I call Chaos Magic.

He has an enlightened view of the current worst-of-all-worlds legal mess around drugs, and is convinced that engagement with psychedelics (in which he includes cannabis) is generally healing.
He has a lot of faith in people making use of the positive experiences they get on psychedelics in their everyday life, to make themselves 'smarter, stronger, and better people', but is realistic about psychedelics not necessarily 'curing' addictive patterns.

The advice for running psychedelic sessions is very good. For instance:
'Ground control can always talk to the user in a rational manner and help him to separate his inner experience from the outside world if necessary. Questions such as “What are you experiencing now? ”, “Is there much visual imagery? ”, “Can you interpret your experience?”, and “Does your experience seem to be leading toward a goal?” will help the user to activate the rational observer in his mind while at the same time still experiencing the psychedelic experience.'

I expected things to go downhill with the Religion chapter, like they usually do, but was refreshed by Leihy's non-dogmatic, sceptical approach to the (very real, subjectively) psychedelic experience of God.
'Huxley makes the assumption and believes that what he calls “Mind at Large”, is truly God, the knower of all things. I hang back one step and take the more cautious approach and consider the religious experience to be one of many different cosmic concepts that can be experienced fully but none of which can be absolutely proved or disproved.'

However, he does seem to slip into a starry-eyed view of the religion problem:
'Recognizing the awesome and miraculous nature of existence and its extreme complexity can take the place of worship.'
If only that were the case for the majority of people. The persistence of simple, dogmatic faith into adulthood is one of the most problematic features of human behaviour, and, as sad as it sounds, it looks like most people will never grow up enough to tolerate ambiguity or engage in real enquiry.

Still, he is not sunk in dumb newage faith, despite his quoting the highly dubious Deepak Chopra.

He advises something like a Chaos Magic approach to Invocation:
'If COEX systems symbolized by the serene sage, the loving Aphrodite, and the confident and honorable superhero were close to the surface of consciousness in a person’s daily life, his relationship with the outside world could be quite pleasant, productive, and satisfying.'

I was intrigued by his statement that 'One’s relation to an assumed or a real God is a basic and important personal COEX system, and the less conflict within it the better.'. He goes on to suggest we find 'comfortable assumptions and convictions to resolve conflicts within this domain of mystery'

This is a therapeutic resolution that is no doubt worthwhile for some people, but I'm not sure I want 'comfortable' assumptions or convictions, and he does say some very dubious things about this issue:

'There is even a cosmic resolution between the concepts of the creationists and the evolutionists. Assuming that existence is an ongoing process influenced by spirit, ... it would not be too much of a jump in logic to assume that God is creating existence in such a way to make it appear that evolution has and still is taking place. He could be creating even older bones in the ground for us to find in the future even as we speak ... Evolution could be taking place but God could be creating it.'

That's rubbish: the above isn't evolution, but a cynical facsimile of it, a lie. If we want to honour God, then please let's give him the good grace to make laws and, most of the time (apart from miracles) let things run according to those laws. The laws of Nature as the mind of God, and so on.

But Leihy is defending a very different kind of god here, a shyster who hides himself deliberately, an authoritarian father out to trick and hurt his children into dumb, terrified obedience, to paralyze their intellect. This is William Blake's sociopathic bully Nobadaddy, probably the most evil god ever invented, and there is no way I want to 'get right with' that thug.

Back to the good stuff; in the final Summary, he writes:
'I believe that the greatest long-term benefit of psychedelic experience is that it can help to reduce emotional, psychological, and philosophical tensions to the point where calmness, relaxation, clear thinking, and the basic appreciation of life can become more prevalent. Living in a more relaxed body and with a clearer mind if a great benefit in this turbulent and uncertain world. In addition, the universal need for “self transcendence”, as is sometimes pursued with dangerous drugs and extreme activities, can be fully satisfied with minimal risk and with absolutely no poisonous effects or aftereffects'

Well said, Mr L; these truths need arguing again and again, then maybe, just maybe one day things will start to change for the better.

Monday, 23 May 2011

More Energy Magic events plus a brief rant

In a couple of weeks I'm facilitating a workshop on practical energy magic, at the Hagazussa pagan festival in Austria (http://babajaga.hagazussa.tv/). This will be the other end of and hopefully a culmination of my first year of teaching energy magic, not to mention experimenting much more rigorously with it.

The weekend after that I'm leading a one-day breathwork intensive in my home town of Sheffield. You can book at:
http://m.facebook.com/event.php?eid=147839925288313&refid=25

Then the weekend after that, I'm back teaching energy magic again at the Pendle Witch Camp, my first visit to that festival. Looks like some good things happening, check it out at: http://www.pendlewitchcamp.co.uk/

While on the subject of 'subtle energies', I'll take the opportunity to resume my rant about parascience. Some of what science is doing to interface with 'subtle energies' is very good, like Chinese researchers making sense out of qigong in terms of physics. The decades-old work on the microwave aspect of qi/chi has already been used to design new and more effective healing procedures.
This is wonderful, but there's an important issue at stake every time we describe the physics correlate of some subtle experience: that we never to let the external, physical description of the experience, (which belongs to what Wilberian integralists would describe as Upper Right Quadrant) dominate, coarsen and defile the subjective (Upper Left Quadrant) dimensions of the experience.
This needs to be recognized as the core principle in combating the insidious, disastrous cultural toxin of parascience (Twitter #parascience, @dleeahp)

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Robin Williamson and John Renbourn in Sheffield

Robin Williamson and John Renbourne, Friday 15th April, The Greystones pub, Sheffield.

The first time I saw Robin Williamson play was with the Incredible String Band, in Cardiff, in 1970, on an all-day bill which also included the Four Tops. For me, the String Band were the archetypal British Acid Folk band, and that had a lot to do with Williamson's strange, fey songs and his skill with numerous instruments, many no-one in this country had heard of until then.

Between then and this gig I've seen him twice more, and both performances were different again - jug band style with Clive Palmer, bardic storyteller with harp. This performance was a bit of all of those, salted with amusing anecdotes from his long and interesting life.

The gig was sold out and, in fact, heavily over-sold - there wasn't even any standing room by the time the players were on stage, and this made for a rather spiky, irritable crowd. All that changed, as people consumed their sacraments of bitter beer, and the music got under way. Williamson played guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and Irish Harp, with real attack; his hair was long and grey but his voice as good as ever, still sinuous and quirky, and sensitive to the other singer, weaving notes around John Renbourn's. After the first two numbers Renbourn stayed very much in the background, the unobtrusive, excellent accompanist, around whose notes Williamson wove his meticulous ornamentation.

Before long, all irritation was forgotten, as we all surrendered to the power of one of the best and most civilizing things in the world - live music. Surely only Robin Williamson could get away with playing Howlin' Wolf's 'Goin'down slow' on an Irish harp...

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Review of 'Psychedelic Information Theory' by James Kent

Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason. James L. Kent, PIT Press / Supermassive LLC, 2010.
http://psychedelic-information-theory.com

My acid-drenched late-teens spanned the very end of the 1960s. I longed for ways to describe and understand my highs and, at that time, the only book that claimed to interpret psychedelic experience was Timothy Leary's book of that name, which, modelled on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, handed the entire thing, lock, stock and goofy (but superior) grin, over to oriental mysticism.

What's more, the illegalization of acid in 1966 meant that book was left high and dry, washed up by the first wave of research, and so, by default, acquired a much more canonical status than it deserved. Another phase of investigation didn't emerge until the late 80s, when the MDMA craze catapulted psychedelics into the public domain again. Since then we've seen a cautious re-appearance of studies on psychedelic experiences; we seem, at least for the time being, to be in a modest renaissance of psychedelic research and evaluation.

James Kent's book is a timely and thorough attempt to describe and evaluate the psychedelic experience in non-religious, non-spiritist terms. He defines psychedelic information theory as: 'The study of nonlinear information creation in the human imagination, particularly in states of dreaming, psychosis and hallucination', and on its scope:

'It is the conjecture of PIT that all mystical states, including healing and regenerative states, have unique formal nonlinear qualities that can be described in physical terms close enough to make good approximations. This means that PIT is also a work of technical shamanism, neurotheology, or spiritual neuroscience, and can be referenced in the clinical application of psychedelic drugs in shamanic ceremony, mystical ritual, or psychedelic therapy.'

That's an early warning of unusual word-usage, with the peculiarly broad use of 'mystical states' telling us straightaway that Mr Kent does not hang out with mystics. He also positions PIT next to chaos magic, defined rather oddly but not inaccurately as:
'The practice of using ritual techniques of spiritual transcendence to manipulate belief systems ... an occult blend of neo-shamanism, cognitive theory, and social theory.'
More of which later...

Writing about how psychedelic information moves through societies, he has the insight to ask why we should care about PIT and answers with a whole chapter (2). Also, he is alert to the well-known dangers of psychedelically-triggered megalomania, and to the bad trip, which generates 'Psychedelic information with negative value ... delusional, paranoid, false, or subverts the health of the individual or culture.'

On the big question, What is Consciousness?, Kent lists, with relentless, confident abstraction, minimum requirements in data processing terms for a consciousness such as the human. Consciousness is seen as linearly stable - in other words, it tens to generate a single, linear narrative:
'Consciousness can perform many functions, but it only performs one function at a time'.

Is this a more extreme position than mine, in my review of Pete Carroll's 'The Octavo' last month? Or is it just that he's saying 'perform' in the place I would have put 'monitor', as in 'be aware of' or 'identify with as self'?

Yes, it took me a while to get over the 'systems' language (Ken Wilber readers: this is a very Lower Right quadrant discourse), but as I did, I got more excited by what this book represents. It is a sober (yes!), scientific approach to understanding not only the effects of psychedelics on the brain, but the effects on society; a real stab at a secular description of the relevance of tripping.

Discussing the other qualities of consciousness, he writes:
'Self-awareness is an epiphenomena [sic] of the functions and properties of consciousness maintaining linear stability through time.'

The use of the term 'epiphenomenon' rather than, for instance, 'subjective experience of', always flags up my parascience warning light, because it relegates self-awareness to a sideshow. This is an example of the reductionist viewpoint entering territory it shouldn't, the essence of the parascience attitude.

His theory uses a modular model of consciousness, which relates it both to chaos magic and to traditional soul-lore such as the Germanic. Approaching the psychedelic experience from this viewpoint:
'All hallucinogens must first destabilize top-down coherence of consciousness to produce novel states of spontaneous organization between the modular sub-units; this is how all hallucination begins. ... Destabilizing or splintering consciousness into novel configurations is the essence of psychedelic exploration'.

Yes! Now he's talking my language. This is the 'solve' of 'solve et coagula', the invocation of Ginnung, the hanging of Odin on the tree, the necessary dissolution before a 'collapse into higher coherence' is possible.

This insight develops into his 'Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action'. Writing about our ordinary selfhood, he echoes Aldous Huxley in 'Doors of Perception', when he wrote of removing the mind's filters:
'What we perceive as waking consciousness is a synthesis of bottom-up sensation modified by top-down expectation and analysis . ... The top-down filtering and focusing of incoming sensory signal is ... perceptually seamless ... Tonic inhibition ... suppresses what is considered abnormal or outside the acceptable range of consciousness.'

Kent introduces a very useful model of how we do magic ('shamanism') on psychedelics:
' ... even though psychedelics destabilize top-down modulatory control of consciousness, feedback control and linear system stability can be entrained back into coherence via external periodic drivers, including rhythmic motor activity, drumming, singing, chanting, rocking back and forth, dancing, and so on. It is no accident that these are also the basic formal elements of shamanic ritual.'

In a very strange chapter, he models the form of the psychedelic interruption of ordinary consciousness using an 'ADSR envelope', something from the world of sound-engineering 'by plotting the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR envelope) of the hallucinogenic interrupt as it effects [sic] consciousness'.

On the subjective experience of nitrous oxide inhalation, he writes:
'The periodic interrupt of N2O can be modeled as a perceptual wave ambiguity that toggles back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness at roughly 8 to 11 frames-per-second, or 8-11 Hz (hertz)'
Where do these numbers come from? Looking to footnotes, we read that the 'interrupt envelope is an approximation based on subjective reports.'

There's a lovely table for us psyche-nerds, listing a range of psychedelic properties that correlate subjective experience with binding affinities for aminergic receptor targets. He comes up with some fairly detailed models of how we hallucinate, and mentions an effect I'd always thought was psychosomatic:
' A common early side-effect of hallucinogen use is stomach tightening and intestinal cramping; this is undoubtedly due to 5-HT2A agonism interfering with serotonergic modulation of smooth muscle contraction in the gut.'

Having established that the brain's synaptic connections can be changed through training, he states that this is what makes shamanism possible, and he introduces Part II - Shamanism in the Age of Reason. 'Shamanism is the craft of evoking spontaneous organization of psychedelic information in a subject or group of subjects ... This ... fulfills the functions of therapy, sorcery, mind control, applied psychedelic science, targeted neuroplasticity, behavioral conditioning, and tribal bonding ... Physical Shamanism, or Shamanism in the Age of Reason, is differentiated from Spiritual Shamanism in that physical shamanism relies on models of neural oscillators and resonant wave entrainment as opposed to spirit models of channeling, telepathy, or clairvoyance.'

Then, after the promising start referencing Chaos Magic, he slides into conventional black/white magic nonsense:
'... the shaman learns to apply this technology for healing and positive plasticity, the sorcerer succumbs to the temptation to use this technology for black magic and negative plasticity'.

He has difficulty getting to grips with sorcery, defining it as 'the craft of manipulating the fabric of psychedelic space for personal gain or vendetta', even though he lists among the relevant powers a few which don't have to be used harmfully at all, such as clairvoyance, shape shifting, remote viewing and telepathy, as well as the darker skills such as curses and mind control.

This confusion, I suspect, arises from a lack of magical experience. He states: 'If shamanic sorcery is a kind of nonlinear chaos magic it should also be considered to be somewhat unpredictable, uncontrollable, prone to high rates of failure, and potentially dangerous.'
Yes, it certainly can be. And there are people out there doing it. When he says 'Anyone experimenting in the field of psychedelic shamanism should be careful to avoid the dangers and temptations of sorcery', I would add: 'Or if you're going to do it, at least avoid sloppy practice.'

This attitude does seem to be a little bit connected to his wishful thinking about the dance scene: 'Goa Trance music is the psychedelic essence of resonant hallucinogenic tryptamine interrupt ... Using an electrically amplified sound system, a trance DJ can manipulate a tribe of thousands in the same way a traditional shaman manipulates a tribe of dozens.'
What a pity that, judging from my experience, virtually no psy-trance fans use tryptamines, but confine themselves to the totally unchallenging phenethylamines such as MDMA. Is it completely different in the US? Or has he been seduced into the shallow newage attitudes around 'shamanism'?

He is good on self-transformation through repeated exposure to 'shamanic' events, and even seems to be referring here to what a magician would call the invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel, or Wode-self:
'The holographic image of idealized self does not emerge in a single moment or even in a single psychedelic session; the organization of a psychedelic meta-identity is a process that may take many hours of a single psychedelic session or possibly multiple psychedelic sessions to fully complete.'

One of the most hopeful passages is a section on that mysterious sense that most ayahuasca users get that some transformation is happening at the level of gene expression. He notes that 'hallucinogens target 5-HT2A receptors, and ... 5-HT2A activation has also been demonstrated to produce powerful anti-inflammatory effects in cardiovascular and soft tissues; and 5-HT2A agonists like LSD may produce potent anti-inflammatory effects against TNF-a (tumor necrosis factor alpha), an autoimmune regulator which has been indicated in atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, type II diabetes, depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.'

This is tremendously exciting, especially for people like the two guys from www.clusterbusters.com I met at the Breaking Convention conference last weekend, who could only get relief from their crippling pain and fear from regular LSD use.

Dealing with spirits, he has the wisdom to assert that '... psychedelic spirits are tricksters', but recognizes that 'it does not matter if the spirits are real or delusion, the information they generate is real and can be analyzed from a formal perspective.'

Finally, he approaches the subtle and knotty problem of 'Gnosis, the All One, and Nonlinear Communion', and concludes that 'Without debating the metaphysical existence of God, the formal techniques for subjectively communing with the All One are reliable and repeatable, and can be readily achieved'.

There are some problems with this book. The minor one is that it very badly needs a proof-reader. Mis-spellings and solecisms abound; 'entoptic' is spelt 'entopic' in a chapter heading, and consistently thereafter, and there are some small but annoying problems with his biology, like reversing the night-day attributions of the retina's rod and cone cells (and 'amine crystals' do not pass thro the blood brain barrier - oww, that hurts! - amine molecules do).

The more major problem is that he has brought together many of the elements of a powerful theory, but it feels unfinished; the text continually swallows itself up, getting lost in a maze of details, as if it's waiting someone to come along and supply an overarching narrative.

In this book's sub-genre, there is probably nothing else since Jim DeKorne's 1994 book 'Psychedelic Shamanism'. De Korne navigates between science and magic, and never really makes a satisfactory link between them; Kent has gone much further and produced a much more useful discourse, but is confused about magic, his ideas contaminated by airy-fairy wishful thinking about shamanism.

For all those objections, this is a brave and useful work whose time has come. At its best, it reads like a manual that has dropped through a wormhole from the future, maybe 15 years on, from when we know how to run our brains.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Spirituality Redefined for the Publishing World - Watkins's Top 100

http://www.watkinsbooks.com/review/watkins-spiritual-100-list

In the Spring issue of the Watkins Review, that venerable bookshop shared with us their list of 'the 100 most spiritually influential living people'. Can we learn anything from this unusual claim? What new meanings of 'spirituality' can we work out from this list?

Well, starting with numero uno, the top of what they refer to as 'The 100 Spiritual Power List', is someone I'd never previously heard of, Eckhart Toller.

This list is mainly of people I've never heard of (63 of them), and of the other 37, I've mostly not read their books. But that's just me.

The Dalai Lama is at #2; no surprise there; he would certainly fit most people's profile of the term 'spiritual'.

Ken Wilber is at #9; that also doesn't surprise me - he tries to make sense out of culture and higher consciousness, so that qualifies as spiritual.

I started getting puzzled, with Oprah Winfrey at #8. I know, I didn't either. Click on the link above; it gets weirder.

At #14 was my second big surprise - Alejandro Jodorowsky. That the creator of the wonderful film 'The Holy Mountain' can rub shoulders with the stiff, pretentious paintings of Alex Grey (#16), makes for strange bedfellows in the 'spiritual'. That writers of barking-mad drivel such as Drunvalo Melchizedek (#36) can share the space with the divine Alan Moore (#49) is even weirder; that the fantasist Erich von Däniken (#63) can hobnob with Stanislav Grof (#89), one of the greatest healers of all time, is just bloody daft.

But then again, I shouldn't be surprised; this is a list of what sold, so there are no criteria of quality at all.

Still, someone at Watkins Review did have to decide which books, films, paintings and lives (Nelson Mandela, #19) had some quality called 'spiritual'. So what explains the inclusion of Dan Brown at #42? No, there doesn't seem to be another world-renowned writer of this name; it really is the man who wrote 'The Da Vinci Code', so what is he doing here? I'm not paying £4.95 for a copy of the Review to find out, so I guess I'll never know.

Review of Breaking Convention

Breaking Convention: a multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness.
Fri April 1st to Sun Apr 3rd, University of Kent, Canterbury. www.breakingconvention.co.uk

I only made up my mind to go to this three weeks before the event, and by then the only B&Bs left vacant in Canterbury were in the £50+ pppn bracket. I took a look at the conference forum (isn't the internet marvellous), got a place to crash and acquired four passengers for my London-Canterbury drive, a motorized pilgrims' route through the gravel-island floodplain of Southwark and out along the Old Kent Road.

The first night, there was a screening of 'DMT, the Spirit Molecule', the record of Rick Strassman's work with experimental volunteers. This film illustrates a major problem in every area of internal work which leads to staggeringly ecstatic states - that so many blissed-out people literally believe they are meeting angels, extraterrestrials and so on. They project the glory and radiance of their visions outwards, rather than owning them as attractors towards which we can all work.

In other words, dear visionaries, the good and the bad news is - that glory is YOU, that Angel is what you can become, that perfect extraterrestrial civilization is what we humans could have if we stopped messing about and learned new ways to live.
The same problem crops up with a lot of mysticism - the visionary has drawn away from, maybe even mortified, his flesh, in order to attain that bliss, and yet experience of bliss is experience in the flesh, it cannot be otherwise. Instead, though, the visionary often creates a little abstract playground of transcendence, projecting the glory that belongs to the flesh into that sterile realm.

Yes, angels and perfect civilizations are real - as real as rocks - but they are made from nonlinear patterns in our destabilized brains. Think of it this way: instead of running Windows or Linux, you're running unknown systems that don't have the kind of coherence you're used to - but very strange and sometimes superior kinds of coherence arise from that chaos.

Some of the talks, especially from some of the senior heroes of psychedelia, were stuff we'd heard before, even if we've never been to this kind of thing but simply read a few books. However, those famous names do provide part of the glue that holds it all together.

The conference was actually framed as 4 events, two running in parallel at any time, meaning that no-one could take in all the talks. My talk took place in the Exceptional Experiences slot. The afternoon had a terrific turnout - 50 seats plus almost as many again on the floor and side shelves.

Amongst the talks I particularly enjoyed were Tom Froese on the origins of symbolic thought. This included a critique of David Lewis-Williams' Marxist perspective, his assumption that all change is driven by social conflict, and pointed out Lewis-Williams's reluctance to speculate about what caused the altered states that gave rise to cave paintings. Was it psilocybin? If so, it is hard to imagine how Lewis-Wiliiams's putative elite restricted that sacrament to themselves.

A challenging perspective from Kilindi Iyi's 'High dose, towards an organic singularity' - this researcher was not kidding with the title - he claimed to have been modelling the shamans of pre-Sahara civilizations when he ingested 30-40g doses of dried psilocybin mushrooms, and became 'something more than human.' He also proposed the interesting speculation that, when the Sahara dried out, its civilizations moved to Nile, taking their gods with them, and forming the earliest layers of the Egyptian religion.

And Kalliope Tavoulari spoke on 'Psychedelics & scientific breakthroughs.' Everyone knows about Francis Crick (member of Soma, an org for legalizing cannabis) attributing his visualization of DNA structure to an LSD session, but the speaker had found a few other top scientists inspired by psychedelics, including Kary Banks Mullis, who invented the immensely useful DNA sequencing technique of Polymerase Chain Reaction.

My talk will probably be published soon; I shall be sure to announce it here. The purpose of it was to introduce the methodology of chaos magic to the psychedelic discourse - and I think it got a good reception.

Of the other events, I enjoyed the excerpt from Donal Ruane's forthcoming film on ayahuasca shamanism and his healing journey. One member of the audience had brought photos of a strange object he had thrown up during a recent ayahuasca session, which enabled his healing and made for a fascinating if grotesque discussion.

Robert Dickins gave a talk entitled 'The rise and fall of psychedelic literature', discussing how our views of LSD had shifted. Dickins made the important point that, with Leary's 'The Psychedelic Experience', a trip manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an absolute meaning was ascribed to tripping, and this throttled psychedelic literature for a long time.

I would say that the same problem has come about, much more slowly, in internal exploration in general, where the success of mystics on attaining 'enlightenment' has overshadowed the whole field with absolutes derived from religion.

All in all, this conference was an outstanding success. The organizers did something really important: they made the 2nd ever psychedelic conference happen in the British Isles, the only previous one being in Bath in 2004.

Not only that, but they facilitated a bunch of more than 600 people to self-assemble from scratch a highly functional micro-culture. On the first morning, walking in to the conference a little late with two other delegates, a man stopped his car and gave us a lift. This was just one example of how civilized people were.

I did get the impression that, although exhausted, the organizers were sufficiently happy with the result to want to do it again in a few year' time. I hope so.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Review of The God Instinct by Jesse Bering

The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life, by Jesse Bering
http://www.jessebering.com/the-god-instinct.php

In 'The God Delusion', it seems that Dawkins would like to give believers a good, sensible talking to about their irrational belief, in the faith that the searing light of reason will banish those ideological shadows. Jesse Bering's book is of a refreshingly different stripe; basically, he is telling us that we are stuck with a tendency to God-related thinking.

He points out that our proneness to believe in God come not from ideology but biology. He takes the main elements that contribute to religious thought - the idea of a personal God, the idea that every life has a purpose, and the idea of life after death - and shows how our mental proclivities add up to a massive pressure to engage in such beliefs.

Why? These behavioural features conferred selective advantages and, as many have pointed out, evolution produces survival, not truth.

The features he examines are the 'theory of mind', the ability we develop during childhood that enables us to put ourselves inside other peoples' heads, and a bias towards teleology. Combined together, these traits bias us strongly towards notions of purposeful design. Also:
'...our theory of mind, erroneously applied to the stateless state of death, orient us toward belief in the afterlife.'

So far, he has due and realistic respect for the million-year old reality generator under our hats, including the departments that just don't listen when we talk reason, if reason is going to vitiate our chances of surviving and passing on our genes.

Occasionally, though, he has a trace of the 'but it's only a trick of nature' parascience ploy, like when he considers how God could be re-introduced into an evolutionary perspective: if we choose (or can't help ourselves) to believe in God as a causal agent in our lives, then the fact that our neurology and endocrinology, as supplied by biological evolution, supplies such a powerful push towards belief in God, may be taken as evidence that God designed us to be able readily to perceive Him.

Bering considers this, and kind of rejects it. Why? Do we have to continue to reject the evidence of our immediate experience in favour of a 'but it's just nature tricking us' explanation? Maybe we have an innate bias towards that kind of thinking - we could call it 'The Completist Delusion'.

Which connects with what he says at the end of his examination of the idea of purpose, where he points out that, if we truly subscribe to Darwinian theory, we have to:
'view human life, generally, and our own lives, individually, as arising through solely nonintentional, physical means. This doesn't imply that we are 'accidents', because even that term requires a mind, albeit one that created by mistake. Rather, we simply are.'

This sounds like the basis for an atheistic mystical vision - but I imagine only a tiny minority of weirdo intellectuals would be able to utilize such a gymnasium of belief.

If there's a principle we can tease out here, it is that of honouring the prime data of human experience, which is subjective, inevitably. Maybe for some people (like the girl in Brian Wilson's song 'Wonderful'), the feeling of the existence of God is a primary datum, like being able to say 'I'.

If that tendency to feel God is not going to go away, then we have to consider the future of religion. Bering prophesies that the God-illusion is so persistent that atheists will never outnumber theists.

So we have a responsibility: we are stuck with religion, so what can we do about it? We can't leave it to what has been called the 'global conspiracy to cover up mass child rape', ie the Roman church. In their case, one can only hope that the social changes that are damaging them will continue escalating, until that church is eroded to a fraction of its present size, a tiny minority of lunatics in barbed-wire underwear, with all the decent folk who can't help seeing God left outside of it, doing something more humane.

We need to cherish and promote the better, more humane end of religion. And keep it out of the state, out of legislation and public life. It should be something you do in the privacy of your own home.

This book is fantastically well written, and abounds in intimate portraits of his own experience, making me think of the literary qualities and personal vividness of Oliver Sacks. Strongly recommended, and maybe I shall take on the magical belief that: the facts of science are given by God...