Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pagan Thanks

It’s Thanksgiving, and my times have changed a little concerning this holiday. For 30 years, I spent the day itself at a big dinner party with my chosen family, the Chameleon Club. We’re the conspiracy behind the Starwood festival, and one of the original pagan organizing teams in the NE Ohio area. Like all families and affinity groups, life moves on, and as young boomers we’re not that young any more. So last year we chose, for the first time, to skip a communal dinner on Thursday and move the whole shebang to the Friday after. I went to dinner with the bio family, and that was a very good thing for me, because last T-day was our last with my mom. Sometimes things work out.

So I’m in a more reflective mood about Thanksgiving this year as well, and I suppose I’ll go on a bit about what there is to be thankful for. Here at Into the Mound, I’ll try to stay on-topic…

• I’m thankful for my birth, as a North American in this era. I have had access to information, resources and freedoms unavailable in much of the world in the past or today.

• I’m thankful for the decline of Christian authority in the west, which has allowed spiritual adventurers and heretics to experiment somewhat publically, to write and teach.

• I am thankful for the Founders of the USA, who made it impossible for the government to tell me I can’t worship the Old Gods in parks, rental halls or my own backyard.

• I am thankful for my teachers, whether the writers of books or those who have taught me personally. If I’ve grown my own Path, I’ve done it from seeds they helped me plant.

• I’m thankful to Isaac Bonewits especially, for his vision and effort in founding the system I’m working in, and the trust and confidence he showed in my work.

• I’m thankful for the work of Pagan and occult organizers, publishers across the world, who are remaking the Old Ways for new days.

I could go on, but I think I’d become redundant, and if I get specific I'll never be done. I am supremely thankful for my partner, who is my spiritual coworker, my lover and my best friend. And I am thankful for the love and co-work of my friends, as we make our lives together.

So, I know this is corny stuff, but ‘tis the season, and nothing is harmed by it.
May we all be blessed on this American holiday for all of us.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Curmudgeonly Crankiness...

Look, it’s surely not my place to tell other folks what to believe. If people want to hold to six-day creation, the value of chastity before marriage or other unlikely notions, it really isn’t any of my business. Still there are a few ideas in the Pagan and magical scene that really piss me off when self-proclaimed teachers assert them, not just because they are plainly mistaken, but because they do, in my opinion, damage to the ability of students to get the most out of the work. Of course the main reason it pisses me off is that my own opinions differ sharply. So, since I have my little soapbox, I’ll get up on it.

1: Religion, Magic and Spirituality.
As far as I can tell, the opposition to the concept of ‘religion’ among magical people is based on nothing more than personal emotional anger toward specific religious organizations, and perhaps toward one or two streams of specific religious doctrines. We hear that ‘religion’ involves rote and empty ritual, ossified doctrine and dogma, money-greedy materialism and power hungry hierarchy. This leads some folks – folks who are busy meditating, working with spirits, doing rituals and having opinions about the nature of things (i.e. doctrines) – to say that they don’t do ‘religion’.

I have come to make an important distinction between ‘religion’, ‘a religion’ and ‘a religious organization’. ‘Religion’ is a scholastic category that assumes some degree of commonality between human styles of relating to the spiritual or metaphysical. Many sweeping statements are made about ‘religion’ (by me, occasionally) but it's very difficult to make generalizations of religions. It is so difficult to find commonalities, even of the things people object to. For instance, Hinduism generally does not mandate ‘belief in’ specific doctrines or models of metaphysics – hundreds of different models are contained within it. Modern evangelical Christianity has little or no ritual of any kind, unlike traditional styles of religion. Many tribe-based religions, such as Judaism or Zoroastrianism, actively reject converts, and do not proclaim that their way is for everyone.

‘A religion’ is a specific body of practice and doctrine intended to produce specific spiritual effects. If one has a unique and totally personalized spiritual practice, it might be more apt to call it ‘spiritual practice’. In fact we could restate and say that ‘a religion’ is a specific set of spiritual practices, especially those shared among a group.

A ‘religious organization’ is created and managed to practice and promote a religion. It is a body of humans trying to run an organization, and is subject to the same problems as any arts or sports organization. Asshole behaviors never fail to occur occasionally, even among the wise. Centuries of power and privilege can lead to corruption.

Most of the complaints people have about ‘religion’ seem to actually be about ‘religious organizations’. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church isn’t a religion – it’s a religious organization. It has financial officers and secretaries and owns a bunch of stuff that it manages. There are plenty of Catholics who aren’t Roman – Catholic Christianity is ‘a religion’ in the way Hinduism is – an umbrella term that includes several specific religious traditions and a number of organizations. ADF isn’t ‘a religion’ – we’re an organization created to build and promote Pagan Druidry, or whatever we might call it this week.

So when a magician or witch takes up any orderly work of relating with the spirits, of doing regular meditation and trance, of group celebratory or worship ritual, she is doing some religion. Perhaps it might be possible for some folks to kind of duff at it, taking a little here and there as they please, and have that be sufficient for their spiritual support. But I think many Pagans are in it for the doing of it, and end up looking for a more focused spiritual practice – that is, a religion. So face it, if you’re in a coven or worship group, or even if you just work alone at your home shrine, you’re doing religion. You may not create a religious organization for it, though some level of organization is inevitable if a group continues, but what you’re doing is religion in every sense.

A religion involves a body of skills that a person must work with. From simply knowing the prayers, small rites and symbolism of the path, to study of its texts and sources, to higher-order skills such as bigger or public ritual, meditation and trance, etc, religions require effort and attention on the part of their folk. That’s because they are training systems, meant to allow the individual to develop their own spirituality.

The result of keeping a spiritual discipline is ‘spirituality’ in my opinion. Now, there are many kinds of spiritual discipline, and the kind of arty and formal ritual I like won’t be everyone’s cuppa. That’s why there are many ways, but all involve at least a certain amount of focused work - even ‘not-doing’ is a method.

If ones keeps at a religion, and does it well, one will develop a personal spirituality. In every faith, even the most dogmatic, those who succeed in developing a personal spirituality will have their little touches, the things that make the path their own. In Pagan religions these can swing pretty wide, as folks alternate through periods of discipline and periods of expression.

That means we should stop bashing ‘religion’ as a category. Asserting that one is ‘more evolved’, or ‘not of the herd’ because one has replaced ‘religion’ with ‘spirituality’ is just a misunderstanding, in my opinion. It’s not a matter of ‘evolution’ (whatever that means in that context), but rather of the growth that happens when you practice a skill. If you’ve reached a mature personal spirituality, don’t look down on those who still enjoy the traditional work, or on beginners, or even on the imperfect organizations that exist to help other people find their way.

2: The Nature of Magic.
I’ve ranted about this, so I’ll keep it short. Magic (or magick, if you still must…) is something you do. It isn’t some quasi-substance or spirit that instills everything, it isn’t another word for the Life in Everything. At least, never in the history of the art has it been used that way, until some fantasy-soaked modern kids started doing it. Now it’s appearing in otherwise-not-awful pop magick books. Damn it!

Magic is a body of human skills, that allow us to work with spiritual powers under our own wills. It’s a category of human art like science, or woodworking, and it has its methods and customs, its tips and tricks. Magic isn’t something you ‘attune to’ – magic is something you do. Even in the above sentence, the ‘attunement to’ would be the magic part – so what is there to… never mind.
I can hardly think of a more misleading teaching than to refer to magic as some current in the world, rather than as a skill you use. It seems likely to lead students more toward lala-whatever-feels-nice country than to the actual effort that magic requires. I guess I just dislike completely redefining terms to suit some romantic notion.

OK, told ya it was cranky stuff…

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tantric Thelema

Review: Tantric Thelema
& The Invocation of Ra-Hoor-Khuit in the manner of the Buddhist Mahayoga Tantras. Sam Webster 2010, Concrescent Press I must quote (or paraphrase) Jason Miller. He is known to say that just as European culture has spent the last 1,000 years developing, say, orchestral and symphonic music, so the cultures of Tibet and India have spent that time developing method and instruction for spiritual practices. Indic magico-religious practice (whether Hindu or Buddhist) has a level of clarity, of detailed vocabulary to describe precise states, of tricks and work-arounds to help ritualists get the results that they seek. By applying those to western deity forms we can recover a great deal of what was lost in the west with the end of theurgy and Pagan religion.

Sam Webster is an old co-conspirator in occult and Pagan organizing and philosophy, and I’m very pleased to say that he has done a fine job of presenting a very useful spiritual technology. Tantric Thelema is an application of Vajrayana Buddhist esoteric methods to the myth and symbol of Aleister Crowley’s magical religion of Thelema. By doing so he offers western magicians and theurgists the best step-by-step guide to the invocation of the presence of a deity I can remember seeing in print.

The small book is arranged as a manual, in the form of a teaching. It is delivered in the author’s voice speaking to his beloved wife, Tara, who was lost to illness some years ago. The gentle, reverent voice thus produced gives the whole teaching an easy, pleasant feel.

The manual is utterly practical. With only a few pages of introduction it moves immediately into the first section of the detailed spiritual practice (sadhana) that it teaches. In this section we find the most overt orthodox Buddhism. Classical Buddhist ideas such as ‘taking refuge and dedicating merit’ are taught in a fairly straight-forward Vajrayana way, using symbols and verses from the Book of the Law. The author does a fine job of reconciling Buddhist ideas with Pagan ones. Some are very nicely suited to Druidic work, such as the invocation of the Lineage of Teachers. While I hesitate to fiddle with a well-made device, these preliminary exercises could be replaced with whatever preliminaries one’s own system preferred, without harming the later techniques.

The meat of the teaching concerns what is called Deity Yoga. Combining incantation with visualization and offerings it will all feel quite familiar to experienced invokers. What is less familiar is to see the method laid out in such clear, step-by-step detail. Two forms of invocation are described. “Generation In Front” invokes the deity as though into an image before you, to receive worship in an I-Thou formula. “Arising As” formulates the deity in the person of the invoker, allowing the invoker to act as the deity in some ways, for instance in granting initiations and empowerments. It is through the latter formula that further Thelemic Tantra becomes possible, as a couple arises together as god and goddess.

Yr Hmbl writer knows very little about Vajrayana, but I was never at sea with Webster’s descriptions of ideas or methods. I know rather more about Thelema, and it is a pleasure to see it expounded so gracefully, and without gothery. I know, I think, rather a lot about the mechanics of invocation, and I still learned quite a bit from this small tantra. Anyone interested in restoring the juice to western theurgy could benefit from Tantric Thelema.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A New Year

Yes, I know that the case for the Samhain feast as the “Celtic new year” is only so good. But it's good enough that, combined with a lifetime of personal custom, I'll continue to make it an annual turning and assessment point. The past year has actually been pretty productive in occult and Pagan matters, and there's more to come. I’ve put out a new book, finally assembled a Stone Creed Grove Book of Rites, and developed a couple of new workshops for presentation.

The Nine Moons project is very near to conclusion. The ritual material is complete and being tested, and I'm a couple of articles away from done. I'm also moving along recording the trances and audio support. I'm left with one big question. Should I offer the material as an actual correspondence course, or publish it as a book with accompanying CD(s)?

There are several examples of the latter model. Ashcroft-Nowicki, Tyson, Buckland and, I'm sure, others have written and published self-contained month-by-month magical training courses. With the recorded support, I think I could offer something useful in a one-shot, which would require much less management and time from me than a correspondence course.

However doing the course would allow me to tweak the system with a round or two of students and is, of course, where the money is. Do I care about generating actual income (rather than a bit of extra book-money) from my occult work? That *is* the question.

On consideration, I’m leaning toward doing the direct publishing. That doesn’t preclude offering a course, with personal guidance and assessment, and new material as it develops. I just can’t resist the lure of having a shiny new book to sell.

At home, our transition is nearly complete, and we’re moving our Home Shrine into a new room, even now. We’ll have lots more room to work and I mean to make something nicely sculptural on the walls as I had done at a previous shrine. I want to be able to light it up into an inspiring display, my own indoor temple.

On Monday, which is roughly the first crescent of the moon of Samhain-month (November is called ‘Samhain’ in Irish), we will hallow the new shrine. That will begin a new round of observance and experiment for me. L. has been diligently meditating along these past months, but I’ve been slacking over the summer. I’ll be getting back to regular daily work, and to Retreat Days, working the material from the Nine Moons from where we left off. I must admit I’m hungry to do some serious magic. Just a little more prep work – a couple of key tool-consecrations – and I’ll be ready to attempt some of the spirit arte I’ve been designing.

On that side of things, I’ve been doing more work with my own Allies, especially the Familiar I’ve worked with for over 20 years (holy whoever… 20 years since that rite…). All results have been immediate and positive, for small, ordinary things. There’s been some sense of warning and reminders of reciprocity, but that’s all been working out, and will become easier with the new shrine in place.

I look forward to a productive year, spiritually, some of which I will chronicle here. This is the second birthday of this blog, and I do thank you all for reading it, and encourage your comments. On we go…