Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 14 (archive 2011)

Chiva is the nom de plume of a friend with both Thelemite and feminist credentials.

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it? What is your academic background?  How do you see these interacting with each other?

Chiva: I was raised in a secular household. We were ceremonially Episcopalian. My father’s family is incredibly religious, as in Baptists.  My aunt teaches theology at Princeton, my uncle is a Minister, and my cousins are missionaries. Growing up my father was subjected to what now would be called religious abuse. So, we got the whole “Science as God” gambit growing up.

My mother’s side of the family is all doctors. They were ceremonially Episcopalian. They would all regularly comment on the miracle of the human body and the sanctity of various life processes (birth, sex, death). They thought Jesus was for suckers. They were all agnostic and “prayed just to be safe.”  Church was a thing for kids, social ties, and Handel choirs twice a year and also for getting drunk after midnight mass.

This, along with what is, without question, a genetic predisposition towards the appreciation for altered states of consciousness, led to my spiritual curiosity and underlying meta theme “that there is some Science in that there religion”.

I was always interested in existential questions and man’s general relationship to nature. I got The Power of Myth from my grandmother when I was 13 and never looked back. I have seriously studied various types of “shamanism” and many so-called new age and Pagan movements. I have studied the Abraham faiths; specifically, most permutations of the Christianity.

I was always interested in magic and the occult. I found out about Thelema when I was around 19. I thought the Book of the Law was too biblical, that most of the people, I knew, who were into it were douche bags and that it devalued women in a serious way. I still think all that. This goes with all Western occultism though.

I got back into Thelema when I met a bunch of people who weren’t uneducated douchebags, got better Crowley material, and noticed how much of the “program” was parallel with my own practices, journey, and precepts. I got really into it. I used it to great effect.

I have since out grown the devotional mindlessness of what’s contained and popularly promulgated in that system. In that sense, I could not fairly be a called a Thelemite. I think the OTO, the AA, and all the heterodox permutations are ineffective, poorly conceived, poorly executed, appeal to marginalized individuals, and often incredibly stupid.

Still, I am a Thelemite. I am because I believe that the book of law was a largely received document. I think Crowley was a prophet, in a world where Mirra Alfassa, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and Bob Marley are prophets, Crowley absolutely qualifies. Most importantly, I am still a Thelemite because I think that “Love Under Will” et al. represents a deep symbolic spiritual truth about the human condition. There are so many great things I can say about Crowley and the work. I simply can’t reject whole sale something that has had such a profound positive impact on my life.

Skepoet: How do you think Thelema fits into the larger pagan moment if you even think there is such a thing?

Chiva:  I was doing the academic back ground thing but I’ll give you this. I think it depends are you talking about now or when AC was alive? Crowley came from a generation of spiritualists that did all the bull work of the neo-spiritual eclecticism that we now see in our popular culture. I think, in that sense, Thelema is highly influential. For example, it is the direct antecedent of Scientology.

In the modern pagan community, with all its Renaissance Faire and con culture overlaps, Thelema is the table where all the assholes sit. It’s for people who do not want to play nice with Mother Earth and The Secret. It is also the occult movement most focused on magic. Generally speaking, Thelema’s current influence is in being considered “dark”, “hardcore” and attracting generally predatory people. It’s got in that sense a bad reputation.

Beyond that, there really isn’t a lot of influence. Most people know nothing about it. Most Thelemic organizations publish or promote very little of interest to a more general audience. Most serious occultists and Thelemites view Thelemic media as either collector’s items or abortions of human thought.

Here is where you get this interesting split. Thelema is not the OTO, EGC, and the AA. These are, loosely, Thelemic institutions. Most people, who are not Thelemites, as well as many Thelemites, would be hard pressed to succinctly express the distinction. But, for my answer, above, they might as well be the same. Modern Thelema is not in terms of thought, people, or accomplishment very influential. But, it did capture the imagination of Jimmy Page. So there’s that.

Skepoet: So why do you think Nietzsche, French decadent poets, and sort of late 19th century avant-garde have such an influence on Thelema?

Chiva:  Because the point of Thelema is human liberation. To a white guy in post-Victorian  milieu that starts with fucking, drinking, and getting rid of Jesus. Also, many of these people do form the basis of the “counter-culture” cannon.

Also, that shit was the hipster currency of the era. People forget how many of these types of movements were all going on at the same time. You have an unprecedented amount of social experimentation and change going on between 1910 and 1948. You can clearly see how the Futurists, for example, were coping to very similar values. Thelema is, from a more historical social logical perspective, one industrial era pleasure cult among many.

Crowley was trying to go meta before there was meta. Much of that is about getting rid of Protestant anti-pleasure programming and, more intelligently, releasing the individual from self inhibiting social reference groups. He got that from the Buddha, you know. The difference is the embrace rather than the rejection of materialism. So, given all that, you get a lot drinking and Xanadu.

So back to the academic background bit. I never finished a year of formal schooling past the 8th grade. I have since gotten two under graduate degrees and am half-assing it though the world’s laziest, but highest quality, MBA program.  I see these interacting like this: I think if I had a better education early on I would never have become a Thelemite. I think class plays a more important role than formal education. However, all class signifiers are learned and can rightly be called a matter of education. Thus I think the interplay here is quite profound.

What more do you want to know about that?

Skepoet:  I am interested, do you see your involvement with Thelema as a route to increase your education autodidacticically?

Chiva: No, not at first. I mean I can easily see that now. But, that aspect of Thelema, aligned with my own leanings. I found it affirmed my autodidacticism and supported it. That was novel. It enabled me to develop myself in ways that I had been sorely missing.

Obviously, it doesn’t do that for everyone. People come to the Western Tradition ie The Tree of Life etc. thinking that these models and techniques are going to short cut, for them, a lifetime of education. Essentially, as a short cut to a certain type of power. I suppose it does that, in a way.

But, really all the models do is help you organize your perceptual realm of knowledge and highlight gaps in your thinking. You have to actually put stuff in there for it to roll around with. You realize very quickly, as you begin mastering it, that you need more resources. Most people don’t get this far. The more you know the more stuff the occult work can do for you.

I was looking at something that was attempting to connect all these loose strings I personally had about humanity, technology, spirituality, and the nature of consciousness and reality. There was Crowley. He had a manifesto and quite a body of work. He was dealing with the same things I was. He was much further along and Thelema was the output of his “The Truth, as far as I can tell, so far” I took it and saved myself a ton of heartache and time.

I had personally been shut down, in terms of my own development. Working that system, with the people I was doing it with, required I bring more to the table. Because, in order to get Thelema/Crowley you have to do a lot of work.

You have read his references, which are many, go through his work, and then you have to look at what we know today and see what is true and what is bullshit. You have to learn to be very discriminating and you have to do a ton of critical thinking.

Forgive the coming digression.

People who don’t do that work just wind up worshiping this person, blindly going through exercises, ritual and naked lady shows. They wind up exchanging the pabulum of the dominant culture for the pabulum of Thelemic and occult culture which isn’t ultimately very empowering.

This, to me, is the biggest flaw in Thelemic institutions. We know significantly more today about human conditioning, peak performance states, and how to empower individuals. None the less, nothing in these groups curriculum has been updated.

People are just stubbornly dealing with a century old post-Protestant bootstrapping. In today’s context, this shit has limited efficacy and appeal. Besides you can get the high points other places, in our culture. AC would have incorporated NLP, hypnosis, nutrition, Cognitive behavior therapy, etc.

These groups don’t. Groups like Osho and Scientology do. This is a big part of why they are significantly more successful and influential than a group like the OTO.

End digression.

Anyway, when you go through all of that, you wind up having increased your base knowledge by quite a bit. If you are an autodidact, as I am, you wind up thinking things like “What is this thing called Art History?”, “What are the core components of efficiently learning a language?,” or “Let’s make some DMT!” as a matter of course. If you aren’t, then you just get a fabulously indexed ideological entrenchment.

Skepoet: Do you see ideological entrenchment as more dangerous among occult groups or even marginal groups in general?

Chiva: What do you mean by dangerous?

Skepoet: More common with clear negative effects.

Chiva: Not particularly, no. I don’t think it’s any more common than what we see in our general population. Look, Moe Tucker and David Mammet are Tea Baggers. We look at this ideological entrenchment and think of it as inexplicable and embarrassing. We don’t think of it as dangerous. We, who strongly disagree, collectively pity it.

Generally speaking, that’s about as bad as it gets for occult and magical groups. We have this general preconception that people who do magic, paganism, or occultism are automatically less stable and thus more dangerous than the general population; however, this isn’t true.

People in these groups simply tend to be more marginalized. Because of that, there is a higher ratio of a certain type of crazy on display. This type of mental illness/poor socialization makes for plenty of crappy parenting, abusive partners, drug abuse, and unhappy people. But, it’s not what makes spree killers and death squads. That’s a function of different social dynamics.

A normative population has just as many “bad eggs”, more really, but the ideological alignment with dominant culture disguises and affirms much of this. So, en masse I would have to say absolutely not. This is not more dangerous. In fact, it is often significantly more empowering.

As for an individual, sure. Ideological entrenchment means that you have placed a hard limit on how you’re going to grow. If you are stuck with a bunch of crappy ideas, then mores the pity. We all know the folly of The bomb religion at the end of Planet of The Apes.

But, as people, our identities demand we have a certain entrenchment. So, in that sense, ideological entrenchment isn’t a totally bad thing. In fact, in many cases, for the individual and the group, at large, it’s a highly desirable condition. It’s what gives us our psychological feelings of certainty.

Skepoet: How much certainty do you think an individual needs?

Chiva: Well, it depends on what kind of person you’re trying to get. That’s really a very vague question. Can you please rephrase that?

Skepoet: Well, I can’t find the studies off-hand, but I have seen that many studies that indicate that happiness levels of true believers are higher because they have little cognitive dissonance. The idea of certainty of postulated as the key. However, it also let to individuals having higher levels of delusion. Strangely, in the last six months, there have been some studies indicating that depressed people tended to have more honest views of their situation. So I suppose I am asking what you think the balancing act is between mental flexibility and self-honesty, and certainty.

Chiva: For my personal preferences, yes.  However,  you have to remember that my personal happiness isn’t my highest value. I like happiness, don’t get me wrong. I am just saying that I am personally willing to be less happy in the name of other values.

For most people, this isn’t the case. This is a position that can only be arrived at through the acquisition and wielding of a great deal of privilege. Most people, on the planet, do not have this privilege. Further, most people aren’t all that interested in getting it. They would rather just “be happy” and live fairly unconsciously. I can’t say that I blame them.

Anyway, most of our individually experienced reality is based on unconscious projection and delusion. (Those depression studies have been around forever, by the way.) In any case, Positive Psychology, Social Dynamics, CBT and Ponerology have a great deal to say about this. The upshot being that our general well-being is predicated on reinforcing any number of perceptual lies. Also, and this is very promising, there is a general prescription for human happiness and compliance.

As a Thelemite, this is all of keen personal interest. Keeping up on and utilizing this kind of stuff is literally part of my religion. I have to stress, that it is also quite in line with me and Mr. Crowley’s WASP class origins. I think that has to be pointed out.

He and I share any number of fundamental class assumptions. Class origins are, as we know, significant determinants of human expression. They are not destiny, though. That’s nice.

From a Thelemic/Western Occult POV you have to learn your personal ZERO. You have to know what you as a human organism needs. We require a certain amount of water, nutrients, company, and happiness to optimally function. You have to know your limitations, tendencies, and attributes. In short, to get to where you want to be, you have to know your starting position.

This is why, from a Thelemic POV, knowing your Will and how to work with it is of fundamental importance.

Skepoet: What do most Thelemites might by Will and how does it differ from the common understanding?

Chiva: Well, Thelema is Greek for natural determining inclinations or appetites, sexual desire, and spiritual law (an example for the last is the Septuagint uses Thelema in all the “His will shall be done” bits) the root, Greek for will, is theo. Here I need to point out; I am not a Greek scholar. However, it is my understanding that Ancient Greeks had nearly as many words for will and desire as Eskimos does for snow.

The common understanding of will is as a verb and a noun. It means desire, purposeful action, determination, and the exercise of choice. Thelemites think of this common definition as something aspirational, practicable, and of supreme spiritual significance to human beings. But, we also have this other thing called the True Will. This is where the most significant deviation occurs.

True Will, most simply, means knowing your life’s purpose. Your raison d’etre. This Will is supposed to encompass the entirety of the being. It is a simultaneous noun/verb coupled to a specific signifier, which is the source cause of a particular human’s existence. (It goes without saying; the cosmology at work here requires a tremendous amount of unpacking) This is why K & C is of such great significance. As K & C is supposedly the method by which one begins to acquire the deepest apprehension of that Will.

In modern psychological terms, it turns out that having some overarching metaphor is essential to good self-esteem. This knowledge of purpose and its relationship to self-esteem is apparently a cross cultural phenomena. You can do a google on that and find page after page of scholarly work, studies, and purpose centric motivational programs. It’s all quite interesting.

One of the most interesting take-aways, from that, is the discovery that Purpose centric goals are holistic to one’s psychological makeup. Thus there is significantly less resistance in accomplishing any goal or task that relates to it. (See Maslow’s Esteem and Self-Actualizing needs)

Aleister Crowley envisioned this like some Cosmic Communist system “Every one to their means and abilities” etc. In his more idealistic Pollyanna type waxing he thought everyone would be humming along in perfect harmony, if we were all doing our will. This, from any practical spiritual or materialistic point of view, is some bullshit.

Life is filled with all kinds of vicious competition. In his writings, Aleister Crowley vacillated between this “vicious competition” being a perpetual cosmological state or simply a social situation that required a “great culling” due to inorganic interference of prevailing social structures. (Specifically Modernity – We are still talking about a Post Victorian Honky, you know) Still, there are any numbers of perceptual, quasi-spiritual, and psychological states from which one can observe the relative truth of all his sentiments on the subject. Seriously, if you do the work it becomes really easy to see where he coming from, as you are going to see it/go through much of it too.

That said the game significantly changes once you actually do acquire K & C and crossed the Abyss. At that point, you are on your own. There’s no real method, system, or ideology that remains wholly consonant with your personal experiences and truths. The only people who can really understand that are people who also have done/have this – or whatever their culturally derived equivalent is. I am not trying to be coy. It’s simply quite similar to explaining a psychedelic experience to someone who has never had one.

Skepoet: What do you think of the criticism made by some I have heard in both the Thelemite and the Reconstructionist community over the years that both paganism and magic have been over-interpreted in terms of psychology?

Chiva: I think that’s incredibly valid. You look at what people call Alchemy, for example, and it’s just a bunch on Jungian symbolism. The fact is that if you’re not making shit, you’re not doing Alchemy.

Magic is like that too. People want to reduce it to trance states and cognitive psychology. There is, without question, an element of that in magic. However, that is not all of what magic is.

My counter criticism to the anti-psychology camp is that A) These people are also incredibly incurious about the rituals themselves. There’s no interest in taking apart the rituals to see what’s actually making them work.

B) The above being true, you are stuck with discussing rites in terms of theater, social sciences, and system specific metaphors.

C) Just because it isn’t just psychology doesn’t mean there is not overlap or interplay. Because, I have news, there totally fucking is. Siggy’s best students were Anna, Jung, Lacan, and Reich. I don’t know about you but the total body of work generated seems highly esoterically oriented study group, to me.

How can we afford to be so incurious regarding the overlaps?

But, this goes to my larger critique of the flaws in the Pagan/occult community: There is a dearth of intellectual curiosity going on. What we call Western Occultism is what literally gave us the Modern World. Everyone we venerate as a scientist or mathematician from Galileo to Newton was an occultist.

So, why aren’t we looking at that? Where is the Science in our Religion? Why is this community “Keeper of the Faith” vs. “It’s my Party and I’ll make it Sad Panda, if I want to”? It’s like everyone is sorrily missing the point there.

Skepoet:  I have heard many of people I interview talk about the increasingly historical and rigid rituality within the occult movement, and a move away from Wicca because it’s somehow corrupted by ceremonial magic. Do you see this trend as bothersome as an outsider in a related tradition?

Chiva: No, not at all. I was unaware that people felt Wicca was corrupted by ceremonial magic. I think that’s funny given the actual origins of the so-called Wiccan movement. None the less, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t really have an agenda with the neo-pagan community or the ceremonial magic community at large.

My main issue is that it’s very pop. I liked it when I was 13. I also really liked the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Heavy Metal, when I was 13. I’m an adult and these days I like my midnight movies to be a little more Mathew Barney and Peter Greenaway. Do think this is due to people like Thorn Coyal and Laurie Cabbots use of experiences with ceremonial magical or what? Where do you think this trend is coming from?

Skepoet: I think the fact that its come out that Gardner’s rituals have more than a passing resemblance to Golden Dawn, and Ronald Hutton’s books on the subject have illustrated that the 19th century/early 20th century anthropology that was used to justify Wicca as a “old faith” was largely problematic. Even most Wiccans now admit this. However, if there is a trend I am noticing by pagans who aren’t Thelemites, they start with exposure to or members of Wicca quite often.

What do you make of all the Christian and Gnostic symbolism in Thelema?

Chiva: I think the fact that it’s come out that Gardner’s rituals have more than a passing resemblance to Golden Dawn, and Ronald Hutton’s books on the subject have illustrated that the 19th century/early 20th century anthropology that was used to justify Wicca as a “old faith” was largely problematic. Even most Wiccans now admit this. However, if there is a trend I am noticing by pagans who aren’t Thelemites, they start with exposure to or members of Wicca quite often.

What do you make of all the Christian and Gnostic symbolism in Thelema?

Skepoet: Why do so many Thelemites consider themselves part of the larger pagan community you think? Is the symbolism of the Book of the Law part of this?

Chiva: Okay, the thing about BOTL is that you get Horus, Nuit, and so on. These names and concepts are all corrupted honky Egyptology from a hundred years ago. So there’s that. Then you have Baphomet and Babylon. (These are direct biblical references from Revelations. Which is weird because no one can read the “Whore of Babylon” and think it’s talking about a person or a goddess but whatever.) Then you have AC’s great table of correspondences in 777, which are all pinned to the tree of life, which is from his seat in history at best a Jewish Mystical invention. Plus a whole host of other shit.

IF you throw all that at someone who doesn’t know the history and has Wicca as a hey- this-isn’t-Jesus!-base, suddenly we are all “Pagans”. People, in general, don’t put it together, they aren’t educated enough to know. And, they don’t have enough critical thinking skills. Most importantly, they aren’t curious enough about it.

More than that, though, you have general socio-economic overlaps with, to be nice, something we will call geek culture. The people who are attracted to Thelema and Neo-paganism have more in common with each other than they do with most Baptists. It’s not like Neo-paganism and Ceremonial occultism attract a vastly different demographic. I think that has more to do with it than anything.

Skepoet: Anyway, do you see the demographics in various Thelemic organizations changing at all recently or in your involvement with it?

Chiva: I don’t think so. But, I am not qualified to say, as I am not really plugged into the community anymore. But, the fact that I didn’t see it changing significantly influenced my decision to detach myself from it and the neo-pagan/occult community, in general. I still have plenty of spooky friends online. But, in my day to day I don’t have that much interaction.

To be honest, Skepoet, I get more from talking to you than I get from most people “in the community”. It’s just not that interesting, to me.

Now, from time to time, I meet another Gnostic adept and when I do it’s lovely. However, mostly we just agree to wave at one another and get back to what we were doing before. Because, once you get to that stage, you have your own thing that you’re doing. You aren’t worried about anyone else or the group anymore.

I feel like I am being a little tacky.

Skepoet: Thanks for the candor, Chiva.

Chiva: Anyway glad to help. It was fun.


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