By Kent Cockerell
In a post-chaos magick and post-postmodern world, folksÂ haveÂ a lot of freedom. Â Freedom is a good.
But is freedom an essential or ultimate good?Â We wonder.Â As is the case with any tool, freedom can be used for good or ill effect. Hammers can bang to build or to destroy. Â We’re free to destroy ourselves, but we’re also free to pursue beauty and truth and sex and ice cream and motor sports.
Writers usually learn an important lesson early on: form ain’t necessarily restrictive. Â Or, if you like, restriction in one dimension gives you movement in another. Â An easy and familiar example is the haiku: Â 5/7/5, please, but anything goes. Â The work it takes to conform to the structure can produce raw and wild language. Â Form, for this reason, can be very satisfying â€” but writers (especially young ones) often balk at the perceived limitations on theirâ€¦ likeâ€¦ “creativity”.
Similarly, in communities that practice magick, we see two rough groups again and again â€” those drawn to “form” and those repelled by it. Â The former may appreciate a good Gnostic Mass with the OTO or a Drawing Down of the Moon in a Wiccan coven while those in the latter camp might rather grab a paring knife on a lark, blast the Autechre over the hemi-sync, and draw a one-off sigil in the dust.
Form is a part of genmaiÂ chanting, and of the Eucharist, and of “casting a circle.” Â Those who don’t feel cozy toward form might veer toward the ontological Anarchy of some homebrewed style of chaos workings.
But there is a hidden bump in all this.
Even grizzled chaos magicians working from their own set of personal myths, tropes, and invented language eventually come to relyÂ on the stability of their private worlds. Â Austin Osman Spare discovered and started working with Zos, and despite his distrust of other systems, he ultimately found something abiding in the consistency of his own. Â William Burroughs and Brion Gysin cut up everything exceptÂ the cut up method.Â Alan Moore is all over the map â€” but art, humor, and the old hack-god Glycon hover ever near for him. Â Grant Morrison, Genesis P-Orridge, Richard Metzger â€” they all seem to invite the orbit of reliable personal tropes and systems, however wild and unrecognizable such systems were when they first erupted into reality. Â Rachel Haywire has her post-post-post music.
We all do “reliable” after a while. Â However rebellious, however angry, however batshit crazy we may get, we all settle in time into some kind of formality for describing reality or our approach to â€” and communication with â€” it.
Back to Church
Folks in college who ran in “magick” circles brought occasional fun to House Parties. Encounters with them and their worlds were oftenÂ sloppy, sometimes joyous, and occasionallyÂ scary.Â For my part, it seemed that even after some days spent charting elemental correspondences, all the Work might still end with some half-assed pseudo-synchronicity (or worse). Â But then again, magick at times has portended big changes in my life, and so I still warily accept the possibility for either the thaumaturgical or theurgical effectiveness of life lived ritualistically. Magick has been party or agent in an ill-planned move to Taipei, in major illness (a weeks-long hemorrhagic incapacitation announced by a late night phone call from an unknown number saying “See what I can do?” … I still have no idea who the fuck pulled that one off, but if it was you, you’re going to have to try harder than that, Smurfette), and in courtship, love, marriage, and procreation. Â Yeah. Â Sloppyâ€¦ but ever-present and often important.
Zen practice, however, points in a different direction.
MushotokuÂ means something like ‘no purpose’. Â Zen (in the Soto school through the Deshimaru lineage, as I came to practice it) is about being present to the moment. Â It seems to claim very little for itself outside of a simple and surprisingly terrible prescription: to sit. Â This practice was clearly more powerful than magick â€” more revelatory and more transformative.
Magick, if it was an expression of Will, was only a subset of the old Bodhichitta.Â The practice of direct and conscious co-mutual regard of an awake universe made me laugh, broke my heart and changed my life; magick (at least as I had seen it) seemed a bit tired and adolescent. Â Do As Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law sounded sorta sixteenÂ after time in the monastery.
But even the pale, bald, and brown simplicity of Soto Zen has its ritual elements. Â My teacher said that the ritual was a wayÂ toward realization. Â And that got me thinking that it might be true for other systems, for other religions… maybe even the one I was born to. Â When I went back to church, I faced a serious (and ongoing) struggle with Orthodox Christianity. Â My struggle with my original tradition is earnest (and, I must admit, not particularly happy).
The utility of any religious system is in its ability to bring us back around to a (or maybe to the) transcendental experience.Â See a little light, foam with ecstasy, innit?Â That’s not where things stop, but it is at least at a level somewhat deeper than the Sunday-clothes-once-a-week mindlessness of sanitized modern American religious life.
As for me, I got to church in pursuit of theosis.
Toward the Transhuman
If transhumanism is characterized by advancing human abilities with technology, then we might take those practices (religious, magickal, psychedelic) that reveal normally hidden dimensions of human experience as transhuman. Â After all, as participative cultural developments, aren’t religions a technology in their own right?
Religions, as living myths, give us a tool set with which we can dive deeper into our own consciousness. Â If we dig deep enough, we find rituals that both enhance our cognition and throw us into the face of Mystery.
Picking bits and pieces is the post-modern strategy, and it may bear some unexpected fruits. Â But diving deeply into an organized and richly symbolic system â€” a system designed to transport your consciousness and deliver it into an atemporal experience (eternity) â€” makes much sense for the serious. Â Why rig up a tractor engine to run your RFID skimmer? Â Might be fun, yeah, but it’s inefficient and dangerous. Â You do get points for trailer park grandiosity, but that won’t endear you to the police.
The paradox is quickly apparent: the more serious one may become about approaching the aims of magick, the more seriously one has to take orthodox religious ritual (in whatever religious or magickal system) as a means for transcendence and exploration of the human will. Â These tools have been refined over thousands of years to transform the individual. Â Religions, therefore, are among our oldest, and among the most transhumanÂ of our technologies.
All the strictures and restrictions, and the stupid bits and idiocies, all the old cultural and ethnic and linguistic hang-ups of our religions have a redemptive silver lining: they work as form, as 5, 7, 5, as villanelle, as genre. Within the pressures of obedience to the system, whatever’s raw and real in us may begin to grow and erupt in the here and now.
The lives of saints often attest. Â Saint John the Dwarf watered a dead tree in obsessive obedience to his abbot; miraculously it burst forth in frothy green leaf and fruit. Â Today in the Wadi Natroun, you can still find that very living tree. Â IkkyÅ«, Hanuman, Dhu’l Nun, Lau Tzu, and many nameless, wandering “fools for Christ” â€” they remind us that within ritual (whether on the zafu, in salat, or on a pew) the human mind becomes free to cut through delusion with perfect presence. Â And these strictures may remind us that it is for usÂ to master ritual tools, not for ritual tools to master us.
Folks hunting and picking for bits to use from various traditions, secular transhumanists piling modafinil atop choline atop binaural beats, or Chaos Magicians inventing their own rich new ritual languages… all may find some way to touch the hem of the numinous in time. Â But isn’t it worth proposing that serious seekers take more serious steps to further their own evolution? Â The experience of our forebears on the path is a rich resource, and it takes a rather committed cynicism to dismiss it out of hand â€” especially for those in the transhuman community whose often stated goal is to transcend the given human state and become something more.
As John the Dwarf said to his fellow monks, nectar dripping onto his boots and onto their stony thresholds, “Take this, brother, and eat from the fruit of obedience.”