Christopher Stone explores altered states using chaos magic
Featured image: Nikki Wyrd and Julian Vayne in Dartmoor
I first caught sight of him as I turned the corner from the main road. He was about 50 yards ahead, opposite Treadwell’s, the famous occult bookshop, talking to a tree. Or that’s what it looked like from here. He was up close to the tree – one of those big, old London planes that manage to thrive amidst all the noise and pollution of our over-crowded capital – facing it head on, smoking a cigarette, with a certain animation about his bearing, as if deep in conversation. Perhaps he was checking out the latest gossip. If anyone has a higher perspective on the news around Fitzrovia, it would be that tree.
This was Julian Vayne, my teacher for the day. It was an all-day workshop in Treadwell’s basement: ‘Altered States in Magic – with Julian Vayne.’
He’s a slim man, wirily compact, with an intense air of concentrated energy about him. He’s very alert, watchful, as if he’s trying to take in everything in his environment, seen and unseen, all at the same time. Also there’s a kind of cool self-assurance about him, a core of crystalline awareness, as if he truly knows who he is, and why he is here: a rare quality in this age.
We greet each other and, just before we cross the road to begin the workshop, he leans down and places his palm tenderly on the lower part of the trunk, just at the point where the roots begin to spread.
He had, indeed, been communicating with the tree.
OCCULTISM AND MAGIC
Julian Vayne is a self-confessed Chaos Magician. He’s written many books on magic and related subjects. These include: The Book of Baphomet, Deep Magic, Now That’s What I Call Chaos Magick and Chaos Craft. His latest book is Getting Higher: The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony.
His biography, on the blog he shares with Nikki Wyrd and Steve Dee, The Blog of Baphomet, describes him in these terms: ‘Julian Vayne is an occultist and the author of a number of books, essays, journals and articles in both the academic and esoteric press. He is a freelance consultant, often working in museum and heritage settings, and lives in Devon. His name is most closely associated with the approach to occultism known as chaos magic. Julian is also an initiated Wiccan, member of the Kaula Nath lineage and Master Mason.’
His most public moment came when he served as the installation on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in August 2009, as part of Anthony Gormley’s One & Other project. He was there for an hour. He performed a ritual, summoning the guardians of the four directions, wearing a costume meant to represent the figure of the horned god, Baphomet, the platform strewn with roses and ivy. He invoked the god, calling him down to attend the rite, bringing the spirit of wildness and creative disorder into the grid-locked heart of this metropolitan desert.
Chaos Magic goes back to the 1970s. It is generally acknowledged that it began with a meeting between Peter J. Carroll and Ray Sherwin in 1976. In 1978 these two founded the Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT), and although the term Chaos Magic was not used in the early days, it was this organisation that first laid down the principles on which the discipline is based. Peter J. Carroll’s books, Liber Null (1978) and Psychonaut (1981), along with Sherwin’s The Book of Results (1978) and The Theatre of Magick (1981), are considered to be the founding texts of Chaos Magic.
The central tenet of the movement – possibly the single most important feature, and the element that distinguishes it from most other magical orders – is the idea that belief is a tool.
Belief is not seen as an end in Chaos Magic circles. It is the means. Chaos Magic is essentially pragmatic. People adopt and then discard belief systems according to how useful they are. There are no dogmas, no fixed sets of rules. Belief systems are applied as working models, much as a scientist applies theory, and then the results compared. They are gathered from an eclectic variety of sources, including shamanic practice, traditional religion, SF and horror genre fiction, Voodoo art, rock’n’roll, or one’s own fevered imagination. If it works, it works, and that is all that is required. If one set of beliefs contradicts another, then this doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the shift in consciousness that allows you to see more deeply into the workings of the Universe, to be more receptive, more open to its creative possibilities.
Put it another way: Chaos Magic is not a religion. It does not have a central rite or a core dogma. People are not required to believe in a particular set of principles or to subscribe to a particular idea of reality or image of God. The only demands are that you are adaptable, fluid, able to embrace change, while, at the same time, diligent and hard-working enough to fully realise the implications of what you are doing. Most Chaos Magicians I have met are very well read, very learned in their various fields of study.
The second great principle of Chaos Magic is something they call ‘gnosis’. Gnosis is an altered state of consciousness, achieved by whatever means. This could be through meditation, through staring at a candle for long periods, through enforced stillness, or other inhibitory methods. Or it could be through ecstatic dance, drumming, tantric exercise, or orgasm: through exciting the nervous system. Some Chaos Magicians may alter their body chemistry using entheogens. The majority do not. There is no stigma either way. The emphasis is on the pragmatic. If it works for you then by all means use it. It is through the state of gnosis that the magic occurs.
Which is what we are doing today at Treadwell’s. We are practising techniques for achieving altered states of consciousness. We are seeking gnosis.
Julian begins by telling us about the default mode network. The default mode network is your ordinary self, your everyday consciousness. Your ego, in other words. It is the endless chatter in your brain, constantly seeking to fit events into an on-going story-line; the narrativising function of the brain, very important for your survival. It tells you who you are and where you are and what you are doing in the world.
Whenever you take on a repetitive task, or are doing something which you have done many times before, and which you do almost automatically, the default mode network clicks in. You begin thinking about the past, about conversations you have had, about things you might have said, constantly revising your own history; or thinking what you might be doing later today, or tomorrow, or this time next year: making plans, contemplating the future, laying down your life as a shopping list of future commitments.
Contrary to popular belief, Julian tells us, when we take psychedelic drugs, or practice trance-inducing techniques, we are not stimulating the brain: we are quietening down its habitual ruminations. We are turning off the default mode network. What this does is to allow the brain greater and more diverse connectivity. Instead of following the usual prescribed pathways the mind is able to ripple out like water in a pond, thus achieving connectivity across the whole brain and allowing new possibilities to emerge.
Julian compares it to the difference between the sky at night and the sky during the day. In the day, he says, the light from the Sun obscures the stars. They are still there, you just can’t see them, that’s all. At night, on the other hand, when the light of the Sun is hidden, you can see the much more subtle light from distant stars and galaxies. While the light of the Sun allows you to see clearly what is immediate and in front of you, the removal of that light means that you are able to see much further, much deeper, into the structure of the Universe itself.
Gnosis, then, is the state of non-ordinary consciousness that allows us greater depths of awareness.
The rest of the day is spent exploring various techniques for achieving this end.
We stare at a candle in the centre of the darkened room. We stare at it until its image is fixed upon the retina. Then we close our eyes and watch the negative image as it dances before our inner vision. When this fades, we stare at the candle again. After this we do holotropic breathing: breathing very fast and very deep. I must admit I don’t like this. My lungs don’t have the capacity and I’m worried about hyperventilation – but most people in the room seem comfortable with it.
Finally, and most satisfyingly, we lie on our backs and listen to Julian as he beats a drum to a constant rhythm. What this does is it snares the mind. The conscious mind latches onto the drumbeat, thus allowing the deep unconscious to emerge. You go into a trance-like state, relaxed and alert at the same time, receptive, open, pleasantly engaged. I like this state. This alone is worth the entrance fee.
What we are participating in here is Chaos Magic in its essence. The emphasis is on technique not style. It’s what you do, not what costume you wear. Such activities might be accompanied by ritual. They might be done in circle, or alone. There might be chants and invocations. They could be done indoors or outdoors, in the day, or at night. You might attempt to summon ancient gods, or the spirits of nature: or it might just as well be figures from popular fiction. Whatever it is, it is meant to fire the imagination, to focus the will, to “storm the reality studio”, to use the words of the famous beat writer and Illuminates Of Thanateros initiate, William S. Burroughs.
Julian tells us about three friends of his who went to a Scottish castle in the dead of winter, to stare at a candle for three days. Needless to say, there were some very interesting effects.
And it’s here that we see that Chaos Magic is not comfortable or safe. It’s not suburban magic: it’s wild magic. Outsider magic. Rebel magic for the rebel heart.
As befits its era, there is an element of punk about it. So says Nikki Wyrd, Julian’s fellow blogger, and a 30 year veteran of the IOT, who I talk to over the phone. ‘Punk says that if you want to play the guitar, then pick up a guitar and play,’ she says. ‘Chaos magic is the same. DIY magic. Let’s just have a go and see what happens.’
It is sceptical and yet playful at the same time, driven by curiosity, not dogma. ‘You say to yourself, “what happens if I believe in this or that: how does it alter my view of the world, my ways of behaving?” You are adopting the belief system temporarily, not as a life-long commitment. At the same time, when you return to your normal state of consciousness, your former view of what constitutes reality, it gives you a new perspective. It shows you that this too is a construct: a belief-system, not reality itself.’
Chaos Magic is counter-cultural, she adds. It is not defined by the dominant culture. It makes its own rules. It’s slippery, impossible to gauge or to pin down. ‘Impossible to tax,’ she adds, with a chuckle. The results are inherently hard to predict, much like Chaos itself.
The name, ‘Chaos Magic’, comes from the era in which it was conceived. Chaos Theory was the new big thing in science in the 70s. People were seeing fractals for the first time: those non-linear equations given graphic form as phantasmagorically complex, infinitely repeating structures of self-similarity over scale, like the Mandelbrot set, or the Julia set. These are the very structures of nature itself, and always become particularly prominent when you are under the influence of psychedelics. Maybe Chaos Magic can be understood in the same terms: non-linear magic for a non-linear world.
Also chaos, as an idea, is neutral. It’s not male nor female, neither god nor goddess. It’s not black, white, up, down, East, West, backwards or forwards, good nor evil. There’s no value judgement attached, nothing you can pin it down to. It is a state of nature, that’s all, much like the Tao; reality in a state of constant flux.
‘The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself,’ as the old aphorism has it.
The name of the order, The Illuminates of Thanateros, is a kind of joke.
‘Illumininates’ means ‘Enlightened Ones’ while ‘Thanateros’ is a portmanteau word, consisting of Thanatos – from the Greek, meaning death – and Eros – also from the Greek, meaning sex.
So they are the Enlightened Ones of Death and Sex, a clear reference to Freud, whose later theory posits a polarity in the human psyche between these two forces: between the instinct to reproduce, and the instinct to die.
As a magical system, then, Chaos Magic roots itself in the very core of our being, in the reality of what it is to be alive and sentient on this planet.
As for myself: while I didn’t actually attain gnosis that day, I certainly walked out of Treadwell’s feeling as if I’d just taken my first few steps in an exciting new adventure.
SSOTBME (Sex Secrets Of The Black Magicians Exposed) – an essay on magic, Ramsey Dukes (aka Lionel Snell) (1974 – revised 2002)
What I Did in My Holidays: Essays on Black Magic, Satanism, Devil Worship and Other Niceties, Ramsey Dukes,1998
Anything by Lionel is good, he’s often called ‘The Patron Saint of Chaos Magic’, including his new work:
My Years of Magical Thinking, Lionel Snell 2017.
It’s also worth checking out his YouTube channel.
Chaotopia! Sorcery & Ecstasy in the Fifth Aeon, Dave Lee 2006
Condensed Chaos: An Introduction to Chaos Magic, Phil Hine 2010
Chaos Streams 01 – written, illustrated and published by members of the British Isles Section of the Magical Pact of the Illuminates of Thanateros, 2016.