Saturday, 14 March 2015

Experimental Approaches to Contemporary Gnosis


Contemporary 'new spirituality' presents us with a number of problems: it employs patently false narratives in closed communities; it presumes to have access to a world beyond the more sophisticated materialism of contemporary science (or it appropriates a fake 'quantum' version of materialism); and it holds to a primitive essentialism in a time of existentialist insights.

Keeping Hold of the Esoteric Baby

But there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water in rejecting simplistic belief in universal consciousness, demanding a cogent materialist explanation for everything under conditions where the material world is imperfectly understood and failing to understand the social and individual function of this no-thing called spirituality.

The very term 'spirituality' is slippery and rightfully presented by the analytical philosophers as virtually meaningless. What we are talking about is 'belief that gives meaning', an inward state that need have no connection with any objective reality but which can be constructed as 'shared' in order for it to be built into the edifice of a practice, a cult or a religion.

How can we recapture 'belief that has meaning' as a legitimate aspiration in a post-modern culture but in a way that still takes account of science and stops scientific materialists from claiming that they know far more than they do. They may know that Creationism is foolish but they do not know 'for a fact' that many other things that others believe that they know are decisively and provenly false.

The plethora of new religions provides a pathway of possibilities once we have removed the bad history in most of their mythic narratives, once we have stood back from the anthropological and sociological aspects of cultish-ness and once we have critiqued guides and leaders who are often half-educated at worst and naive at best. But what is then left?

What is left is, first, a series of techniques for accessing the very material but untestable or definable elements of the mind that amount to what most people mean by spirit or soul and, second, a competing set of analogical narratives for describing what is otherwise not describable, certainly not in positivistic scientific terms.

We might see a gnostic mentality (rather than gnostic dogma) as useful in being able to tap into the language of such mythic and artistic narratives. The primary narrative is one of spiritual alchemy to ensure that we, and not society or our pasts, are in control not only of our conscious minds but of a great deal of our unconscious (aka spiritual) minds as well.

Many of these techniques might conceivably be derived from the further reaches of the New Age Movements and from Neo-Paganism but they are much more likely to derive from a dynamic and critical appreciation of the occult and esoteric movements, shorn of its mumbo-jumbo and seen as sets of practice defined as successful by its material effects or transformative illusions.

New Age Insights

Let us get the New Age and New Pagan communities out of the way. Much of theosophy may be arrant nonsense but there are, no doubt, great insights in Krishnamurti's rebellion and in Ouspensky as interpreter of Gurdjieff - two men who took flawed models and used them as the basis for further thought.

There may be important value to be acquired in the 'technologies' of Steiner and Subud but also in the whole school of positive thinking and 'placebo effects', of 'attunement', of aura and colour effects, of an attitude of mind towards personal development and even, with caution as to its actual use, the insights of NLP.

The Emissaries of Light and the Template Network may actually have discovered techniques that deserve further investigation and a great deal could be learned from Raelian sexual and social philosophies (if you can detach them from their mildly demented but amusing and harmless foundation myth). So let's put these on the list for critical investigation.

Neo-Pagan Insights

Neo-Paganism can teach a sense of place as placebo and the creation of imaginative mythic narratives (such as the Matter of Britain) that permit the creative construction of art, literature, sacred places, and the revitalisation of local myth, folklore and the 'faery' tale. Such a place may be a City or suburb or garden or corner of a room as much as a field.

It can also inspire us to the logic of sustainability without requiring the absurd reification of Nature into some benign essence which it is not - let alone the meaningless New Age version that builds a brutal cold Goddess out of Gaia, the planet. The divine feminine may even be interpreted a divisive invention to buttress ego-problems in a flawed society so let's throw that one out of the window.

The planet is certainly a system that we should understand but it adapts blind to our existence and is no divinity. Nature is de facto cruel and wasteful. Sustainability has to be functionally related to what it is to be human amongst other humans, a personal and social as well as formally environmental sustainability.

Finally, there is shamanic technique - inauthentic perhaps against surviving indigenous traditions but recoverable in urban settings or linked perhaps to place and past without racialist or ethnicist overtones. When the British adopt Voodoo, they adopt this technique as their own.

We might then 'play' with Raymond Buckland's Seax-Wica, with Robert Cochrane or with Heathenry but we should set our hearts against accepting forgeries and false histories which merely repeat the Christian tradition of propagandistic lying and re-interpretation of history to 'win souls'. We can be better than this.

Occult Insights

And what of the Occult and Esoteric? There is ancient mining to be done in the Kaballah and in the Tarot as psychic ordering mechanisms, without any necessity for the Gematria (which strikes me as a somewhat autistic technique but one which may add value to some).

There is certainly no further benefit to be had in mystic lineages and traditions, in hidden masters or in ancient pre-Husserlian dogma. The esoteric also gives access to sex magick, possibly over-rated as a tool but, nevertheless, one that taps directly into who we are and how we relate to others. Perhaps an honest sexual magic that is more sophisticated, shorn of fetishistic ritual and reconstructed as a mutually guided vitalism, might be more useful to most of us than our current culture of ‘naughtiness’ and fear.

Without falling into the trap of traditionalism, a core knowledge of neo-Platonic, Judaeo-Christian, Egyptian, Persian, Sufi, Hindu, Chinese and other East Asian traditions does not require that we accept their essentialisms but merely that we understand our own existentialism better through the prism of the choices of the past.

The study of correspondences, of sympathetic magic, of visualised ritual (arguably, the best sexual magical ritual of all) and of transgression within a self-constructed ethical framework is not irrationalism but hyper-rationalism if the study is directed at questioning not merely the reality of the phenomena with an open mind but the meaning of the experience of the reality as reality.

Within the occult tradition, Thelema is a religion of sorts with insights if fundamentally flawed as a counter-intuitive derivative of Christianity, over-elaborated by the successors to Crowley, especially the retrograde Typhonian and subsequent 'dark' traditions. 'Love is the Law' begs the question of what Love is but it is a sound starting point that is glossed on the right hand by the Wiccan 'an harm no-one'. What is not required is some wise inner circle speaking as if the masses were scum. What is required is an egalitarian and libertarian (as captured by Jack Parsons) approach that brooks no formal or restrictive religious structures.

There is practical psychology hidden away in this territory as well. The early Dion Fortune was reacting to a fundamental issue for most of us in mentalising responses to bullying. She also offers a bridge to that sense of place (Britishness in her case) in neo-paganism that we discussed earlier.

There are the insights of Chaos Magick (Carroll, Hine, Anton Wilson, Spare, even the eclectic acquisition of Dick and Lovecraft) which offer ultimate opportunities to detach ourselves from belief in order to test technique scientically before returning to belief when we are ready.

And, finally, there is the Left Hand Path of Vama Marga Tantra as tool for personal empowerment. Transgression and aggression, even violence, are active forces in the world and we must command them, lest they command us.

Conclusion

We have here quite a menu of techniques that do not need us to believe in the absurd and can enable anyone to find the meaning that will mean most to them. I have not even started to address the world of the hyper-real - meaning derived from films, fantasy novels and comic books. There is certainly no need to fall into the error of the desert religions in requiring some divine entity or that of the East (in assuming a mythic universal consciousness) or descending into a countervailing nihilism.

The technique as technique is a path way to more than simple New Age personal development and fluffy well meaning or untenable mythic narratives amongst small cults or a perpetual adolescent belief in actual dark demons. It is the pathway to personal choice about how to construct oneself out of the raw material of oneself - the most advanced type of materialism.

Personal development techniques and a critical review of past traditions, a sense of place and a commitment to a new definition of sustainability and an active exploration of transgressive and irrational operations within an existentialist ethic may construct more meaning that works for us than all the loss of self into some predetermined religious framework.

In short, we do not need religion at all. We do not even need to be hung up on spirituality. All we need to do is take command of that bit of ourselves for which science has no current explanation and make it work for us.