Staying somewhat sane in an occult world
I was quite happy when Josephine asked me to write a piece describing my practices and what I have learned over the years. This has come to me at a time where I have been taking stock as to where I am, so recording this is very relevant to me as I get ready to throw out that which I have outgrown and look in new directions for development. This will be a fairly blunt piece although I will be leaving out some names, however I hope to be able to share enough to give people a view as to what I have done and perhaps help them to avoid some of the dead ends which I can explored.
Magic is always something that I have been interested in and my early childhood was characterised by a number of strange events and happenings, looking back I have always been a strong dreamer and I learned early on how to sort out those dreams which are generated from the clutter of the previous days activities to those which seemed to be something more numinous. However my experiences have been more than dreaming and when you have encountered a spiritual entity or had an out of body experience you move from holding something as a belief to more simply accepting what is out there as your world-view opens up.
Certainly there was enough to convince me that strange things could happen and often did, however everything closed up for me around the age of 10 only to emerge later when I was deep in the practice of the Middle Pillar exercise. The interest in magic never really waned but did get put aside to an extent whilst I was in secondary school and university. A lot of my interests are probably due to my upbringing. My family were fairly open-minded Roman Catholics and whilst we didn’t go to Mass every week I did go through the Holy Communion and Confirmation patterns. Certainly when I started reading the books by people such as JH Brennan I was getting into some deep conversations with my parents and I suspect that there was concern at first on their part.
However my family did like ghost stories so that really was my way in. My Dad came from Malta which is incredibly haunted and he brought with him a substantial body of family folklore. Conversations were a bit more difficult when I started reading Aleister Crowley since my parents were of the generation who remember him in the news when they were very young and remembered the tale about him going mad in a hotel room after he tried to summon the Greek God Pan. That story is actually a myth of course. To be honest I didn’t (and still don’t) really resonate with Aleister Crowley but kept my head down and just read everything I could, avoiding being open about some of the books I was reading under the philosophy that it is better to be discrete.
In the early days (pre-internet, Amazon and me having a salary) the most interesting books I could get were being published by Aquarian Press and amazingly our village library had a well stocked occult section, as I write this I wonder who was ordering occult books there! So I worked through Dion Fortune, WE Butler and of course JH Brennan’s books on Astral Projection. I also read a lot of Colin Wilson which gave me the confidence to draw my own conclusions rather than rely on academic thinking. However apart from reading everything I could, I didn’t really do much until I left University in 1996 and moved to London to work in a bank as a financial programmer.
Once I got settled I then decided to make a start with a Qabalistic correspondence course which was originally (mostly) written by WE Butler. From my reading, his work really resonated with me and I wanted to explore what the school had to teach. There was good stuff there and I did pick up a lot (or rather integrate a lot from my previous reading) and having a supervisor did get me regularly meditating and practicing some daily energy work. However like any big group, egos began to clash and after some issues I chose to leave, they did give me a good foundation though.
Whilst in London I encountered the occult community for the first time and in retrospect remember it with rather rosy glasses. It feels to me that I did experience the tail end of quite a vibrant movement with lots of exciting people doing their own thing, speaking about it and cross-pollinating ideas. The Atlantis Bookshop, then owned by Caroline Wise was the cool place to be and it was really a joy to be invited to the book launch of Kenneth Grant’s “The Ninth Arch” and feel part of things. I remember some amazing conversations that evening. To an extent, although there are some brilliant people in London and often great events, I feel that the London scene is becoming increasingly academic rather than practical so has lost a lot of the fire and excitement it used to have.
Around this however was my growing dissatisfaction with the lodge-room system. It seemed to me that all magicians ever did was sit in their temple rooms and meditate upon the sephiroth of the Tree of Life. My childhood had told me that there is a whole world out there to explore and I wanted to encounter entities rather than sit up in some hazy astral sphere. So about this time I joined the Ghostclub and started getting involved with Psychic Questing. This lead to some amazing experiences which all enabled me to build upon my childhood experiences and begin to place everything in context with what I had learned through the Qabalah. These activities are what also left to my final leaving of that school. I still find it odd to this day that respected occultists are telling students not to explore rather than saying “here is what you need to stay safe, now go and learn something and tell me what you find out”.
About this time I was very eclectic and was meeting some great people and getting a lot of results. In London, as well as the moots we had the yearly Questing Conference run by Andrew Collins and both the fringe (Psychic Questing) and Alternative Archaeology talks were great. I also did my Fellowship of Isis ordination work with the British Goddess Elen which itself continues to open doorways for me; she is very much the patron Goddess of Psychic Questers and embodies all the qualities I am drawn to as an explorer in this world. Finally around this time I also spent some time working in a Typhonian Lodge, whilst chasing ghosts as frequently as possible and getting out there on the landscape and exploring such places as the Tree Cathedral in Bedfordshire, various ruins as well as the more notable sites such as Wayland Smithy.
This period was not all rosy of course. As I was learning a lot at the time I also made a couple of mistakes which really taught me important things such as don’t invite Ouija board entities into your head and why it is a good idea to keep naturally psychic people away from talismanic volumes. Even with a few frights under my sleeve though I learned to pick myself up and kept exploring. There will be days when things can be frightening especially if you open yourself up too much and too quickly and I have found that often with entities our misunderstanding leads to our misinterpretation of what is happening. We can interpret something as a nasty when in fact we are placing a filter in front of it and not interfacing correctly. When this happens I have found that it is important to step back and take a break by doing something non-occult for a few days and then ease back into things.
As it was all going so well, my life then got one of those major shakeups in that I suffered a major bereavement which seems to have shut everything down for a time. It was a horrible isolating time where any psychic development I had gained just didn’t work and this took several years to return to. At that time I was also made redundant and moved to the West Country where I was offered a job in Bristol.
Those first few years in Somerset were pretty unpleasant to be honest and I felt quite stranded and cut off from a lot of things. Its one of the funny things about psychicism and I really don’t know all the rules about how it works. On the one hand there seems to be some people who are naturally psychic and generally have a strong ability which can make them very vulnerable unless they learn to shut it off. However even non-psychic people develop psychicism from practicing a daily exercise such as the Middle Pillar, actually going out with the idea of exploring and investigating or sometimes (as I have frequently seen) just hanging out with other psychic people. There seems to be some sort of induction process which can switch it on just as profoundly as some life experiences can switch it off again.
In the West Country, the vibe of life was very different and once I started enjoying the countryside more and realising how stressed London was making me, things began to improve. At about this time I picked up and read Josephine’s “The Exorcist’s Handbook”. Once I had started pulling myself together again from the sudden life changes I really wanted to get back to understanding what ghosts were from a magical perspective and I had not really spoken to many occultists who knew anything about such things (that still surprises me). This book was a life changer in the sense that it answered a lot of my questions but also left me feeling “that was a brilliant book, just what I needed”. Fortuitously this was just has the Magical Knowledge series was being published by Mandrake of Oxford. So I started reading Josephine’s books and made contact with her via Facebook.
That itself led to appreciation of visionary magic, working with a group and then consecration where two to three years on I am beginning to properly comprehend. There is a whole body of information and practice which I am disentangling and understanding with regards to the western mysteries, work we do in service, consecrated lines and psychic questing and how everything connects together. However I have found that a lot of things I picked up years previously are becoming more relevant over time. I don’t think that this is necessary a mystical thing, perhaps I just have a tendency to poke my nose into the same sort of areas.
Of course with Glastonbury just down the road from I do go there regularly and as an occult scene it does have more than a fair share of dramas etc. As well as the sacred sites and the amazing questing landscape which is the Glastonbury Zodiac, there were plenty of new avenues to explore and classes to attend. Glastonbury hosted a botanica for a time and since Karen, my partner is interested in exploring these practices I too went along to pay my respects to the Loa. Of course it really got interesting when faeries started turning up and possessing people after the vodou services and there is a whole angle there I plan to explore in the future.
To be honest whilst vodou will never be a personal core practice for me, I feel that participating (and I am sure I will again) has enriched me, given me a new perspective on things, and has left me thinking about there being much more phenomena in these settings than we find in western lodge rooms.
Over time I have also noticed that there are certain repeated symbols which crop up in spontaneous ways. For example I mentioned the Goddess Elen and to this day I keep white flowers on her shrine space (not the traditional lilies though since we have cats in the house). I have also worked with White Tara who again is associated with white flowers. However there are periods where purple flowers (or plants) pop up around these deities for me when they are making a contact and I have no idea why. For a time, try as I might to buy white flowers for the shrine space; they actually kept opening up purple.
Other things seem to have a seasonal rotation and certain things awake in me at certain times of the year. I mentioned Kenneth Grant’s work earlier and also Andrew Collins; both have described the ancient Egyptian Queen Sobek-Noferu on occasion. In one meditation lead by Andrew Collins in Avebury several years ago, she appeared before me placed the tip of her forefinger on my forehead and then vanished. Since then, she pops up around July (presumably this is linked to Sirius) and on each yearly iteration I feel a slightly stronger contact build along with an awareness that this work is important but needs time to germinate. So I am curious as to where that is going to go and I do have some research which I plan to follow up and publish one day although it is nowhere near ready yet.
Like many occultists I got bitten by the book-bug at around the time I was earning enough money to be able to afford fancy editions. Of course it is great to have a pile of books however over time that bug has dissipated, I think mostly due the sheer excess of books which are coming out nowadays; seemingly by teenagers who want to appear darker than dark, prattle on about Cain (in various childish spellings) then pretend they are having sex with leather clad succubae. There is also a realisation that one cannot practice everything. I believe that are there can be a very real problem in that the more we bring into a practice, the more confused the whole thing can become.
I still have all the books close to my actual interests, such as those by Kenneth Grant, those on psychic questing and I do love my Starfire Deluxe editions. However for me the precious books are the paperbacks, the ones I can throw into my bag to read whilst waiting for a train. I am a user of kindle books too, although whilst electronic books are great when they are technical programming manuals, as books on magic they do not work so well for me, you cannot easily scribble notes in the margins, recover from an accidental drop or really feel for it.
I feel that the whole occult book market is getting fairly cynical and exploitative in some areas today. Most of the best books in magic are produced in paperback and whilst there are also some wonderful speciality books such as published by Starfire or Fulgur, these are always lovingly produced and a joy. However I also notice that whilst these publishers remain reputable and not contributing to a pricing bubble there are others who will publish any rubbish at an outrageous price. Some resort to tricks like putting extra information in the special editions and generally try to whip up a frenzy of buying. I do wonder how long this bubble has to go before it bursts, but when it does there will be a lot of astral egg on some peoples faces.
To be honest I think that it very important to be particularly careful when a book is sold as talismanic and to ask what does that actually mean and why do you want a talismanic book? (I have been bitten here). Part of the problem seems to be that for some people “talismanic” basically means nicely bound. Now I am as much a sucker for a nicely bound book as anyone, however genuinely talismanic books are much more toxic. Often these books have been consecrated (and that is probably the wrong word since it can involve nasty things) and often act more like an entity than a book. This will have an unpleasant effect on people; especially if they are placed in the presence of naturally psychic people who can be vulnerable since they may not have learned to close off and shield themselves. At best these books can cause a headache and a feeling of dirtiness results; at worst some forms of obsession (even minor possession) is not unknown. One publishing house described their talismanic books as faberge hand-grenades and I think that is appropriate; no one would be mad enough to bring a hand grenade into their house, even if it was painted nicely.
So after one experience which left me rather burned for a time (although not as burned at that bloody book ended up!) I realised that I didn’t want this nonsense around me. I wrapped anything that I felt suspect in silk and plastic bags (both insulators to this sort of thing) and put them out of sight and mind until I could clean and then sell them. It has all developed into a bit of an obsession regarding keeping unwanted things out of the home. Once you realise that magic is not psychology at all and some objects have an inherent property you become a lot more cautious. Whilst of course I do have some items in my house consecrated by myself, sometimes by others and in some cases with indwelling spirits which are welcome, I have learned to be aware as to what I want to bring in to the home to avoid unwelcome intrusions. It is a matter of learning discrimination and discernment, being aware what you are doing and understanding how different things can affect you, both positively and negatively.
After you get past the initial book buying spree and subsequent clear-out, you will realise that there is much of value in books of history, geography, archaeology etc. This is when you begin to apply what you have learned and how your realisations fit together and connect to the past work of others.
Of course as I write this, everything is starting to change again and my theme for this year seems to be that I have no idea what is going to happen next. The owner of the Glastonbury botanica has moved to London; my work is changing as my part of the company has been brought out by another bigger one (nothing negative here, just change) and I find after speaking to a trusted advisor and friend that some parts of my path are not really for me and I move onto different fields such as exploring the magic underneath Tibetan Buddhism not to mention learning as much faerie lore as I can whilst I live so close to Glastonbury. Nowadays I don’t drive quite as fast and tend to be a bit more careful, but the journey has not changed and every day really is as fresh and new as when I was nine and wanted to be a magician.
To end this piece I would like conclude with some thoughts on what I would say if I could communicate with my past self and offer advice along the way. One thing I would not do is avoid my past mistakes. I learned a lot by messing up and I feel that these were valuable lessons, well learned. I am sure that I have more mistakes in me and the secret is to get up, brush off the blood and dust and understand what happened, then not do it again. Of course if I could minimise the effect some of my errors had on others that choice is more of a grey area. Maybe they were supposed to go through these things, so really I would not try to rewrite a single line of history.
My most important point in my message to my past self is to start with and maintain a few core practices, the most important of which are meditation and energy work. Start simply and keep up the practice as often as you can. Whilst it should be every day, in reality I only usually manage periods where I do this for five days a week and occasionally have periods when I don’t do anything at all, usually when extra busy parts of my mundane life intrude. However when I am deep in a cycle of practice I do feel quite good about things and that I am achieving something and I always feel a bit lost when you are not doing something.
Meditation is vital since it teaches you to still the mind and increases your ability to visualise and concentrate. When you get to deeper exercises or you are out Psychic Questing or investigating a haunted house you need this ability and to be able to still yourself and concentrate even if you are standing next to a noisy road. It takes time, years in fact to get really good at it. However after a few sessions you begin to experience some altered states where the mind feels disassociated from the body (in fact you lose all awareness of the body) and then the next step is to learn how to get there at will and maintain it as long as possible. Some early teachers suggested I use the meditation to start with a seed thought and concentrate on that, however speaking personally I prefer to cultivate an empty and still mind rather than fill it with more clutter.
Energy work is more complex since whilst we use the word “energy”, its context is totally separate from how a physicist would use the word. Dion Fortune spoke about not confusing the planes and this is one of the classic way in which people do actually do this. I would urge you to start with a practice that is close to your tradition you are starting with. For me this was the Qabalistic Middle Pillar and that worked wonderfully in teaching me to switch my psychicism on, giving me a measure of control of when I am perceiving things or not, and making me aware of my surroundings. With enough work I started to notice energy fields around buildings and sense a continuous vibe in certain places. I also went through a liminal period between sleep and wakefulness which was frequently disturbed with projections; from my psyche. This settled down after few months.
I am not a particularly psychically visual person and also don’t hear sounds very often, but that sense of feeling (clairsentience as opposed to clairvoyance or clairaudience) is often all you need to get started. You will be able to sense if an entity is present and then feel how the conversation is going (if it agrees or disagrees with what you are saying to it). This step often needs more practice in avoiding self delusion that psychicism since at first it is easy to project our desires over the communication. However practice makes perfect and I am finding visual and audio communication does develop very slowly.
Once you start to do this, be aware of any sensations you might feel approaching sacred sites. I used to go through a phase of getting stomach aches when approaching a site. These pains soon stopped once I learned to connect with any site guardians and reassure them that I was just exploring, was happy to just say hello and not be leaving any rubbish. I feel that moving through any location without an agenda is very important and when you do this the site is much more alive and willing to communicate. Again, this all gets back to the idea of service rather than control.
When it comes to energy work, your practice may well change; mine has and I tend to work with the chakras nowadays. Please do not get confused between different systems, each form of energy work is separate, chakras are not sephiroth any more than they are dantien centres from Tai Chi or assemblage points as described by Carlos Castaneda. There may well be connections between all of these, however it is best to focus on a singular practice and stick to it rather than trying to iron out all the inconsistencies. You will find that there are lots of inconsistencies even within the same system and I wasted ages trying to understand (for example) why Yesod was associated with the element of Air rather than Water. In my defence I am a programmer, so I needed to learn to think differently and sometimes just accept things as they are.
Once you have a more-or-less daily practice in place you have everything you need to grow and develop. I found at this point that things began to be presented to me and I took greater interest in things such as paranormal investigation and psychic questing and it was these that opened upon into a pathway of exploration and development. These are always great jumping off points for exploration. The daily practice will continue your development whilst these practices will get you out of the lodge room and lead you to find a specialisation in your environment. This is where the concept of service begins to kick in and rather than look at this in a hermetic lodge room sense I suggest reading Andrew Collins psychic questing books (such as the Black Alchemist) to see illustrated how the psychic landscape prompted him to go to sites to remove clutter and traces of black magic.
Around this there are additional techniques worth investigating. For me visionary magic is perfect since through working in this way it strips off many of the filters which different traditions place around their practice and enables a tighter interface both with contacts and with the underlying mechanisms. So for example it works very well with some of the ideas described by Kenneth Grant which I can explore by entering the inner library, asking to be shown something specific in relation to what I am researching and being aware of what things arise in my vision. There is no need to call Cthulhu or anything like that.
Another thing I would pass back to my younger self is to stop worrying about ultimate truths and final secrets. There are none, in the sense that there are no secret societies which hold all of the answers, have adepts which levitate whilst drinking tea and are constantly engaged in battling the dark brotherhood of whatever. Most of the important secrets are published in paperback and concern getting started, learning to breathe and visualise, these are the basic building blocks from which you can learn to make inner contacts and obtain information directly. The only other secrets are symbols and passwords to peoples private work spaces and there is no more reason to publish these than there is to publish my Facebook password or Banking details.
I do have one final piece of advice. Go to some of those forums where “learned occultists” spend hours arguing what Crowley really meant by a sentence, think Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a documentary or use words like “praxis” rather than “practice”. Have a good long laugh and then go and meditate on anything and do what you think. Don’t go down the route of arguing with other occultists about ultimate truths but rather find some magicians that you mutually respect (you don’t have to always agree) and build up a meaningful and friendly rapport. It will be much more rewarding in the long run; you will make some real friends and be fairly immune to some of the bile often thrown across the community.
There is and always will be so much to do, experience and explore. Do this with an open inquisitive mind and don’t be afraid to explore. Good luck.
Copyright Paolo Sammut 2014.