Sunday, December 21, 2014

Surfing the Astral Light

In making sense of the astral light, the concept introduced in last month’s post on The Well of Galabes, it’s worth keeping in mind that operative mages are by and large more concerned with using magic than they are with proving its existence and efficacy to hostile skeptics The concerns of materialists or, for that matter, the dubious logic generally deployed in attempts to defend materialist skepticism these days, aren’t of great interest to most of the serious practitioners of magic I’ve met; if the skeptics don’t wish to help themselves to the practical benefits of magic, why should the mages care?

Thus the concept of the astral light is not presented by magical literature as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. It’s probably necessary to point out that this doesn’t make it meaningless. Falsifiable scientific hypotheses are extremely useful in that large but not limitless realm to which the methods of science apply—broadly speaking, those aspects of human experience that are subject to replicable quantitative measurement—but they reach no further.  Such statements as “I love you,” “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives me also,” and “government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed” are not falsifiable scientific hypotheses, either, but I hope most of my readers will admit that they mean something, and in their own spheres, something of importance.

So, too, the concept of the astral light. Because magic deals with consciousness and the whole systems that relate to it, it’s fiendishly difficult to quantify, and even harder to replicate exactly under controlled conditions. (How do you control for, say, the difference in the lifetime’s worth of experiences between one human mind and another?). Thus operative mages make use of concepts that are, strictly speaking, little more than rules of thumb, rough generalizations that reflect the experiences of magical practice. The only justifications for this practice are that, first, since the subjective phenomena of consciousness aren’t quantifiable or strictly replicable, generalizations are the only tools we’ve got; second, the generalizations in question do a very good job of reflecting the experiences that people encounter when they take up magical practice; and third, they also have an important pedagogical function.

This last point is at least as important as the first two. To understand how it works, it’ll be helpful to go back to the points made in the very first post on this blog, and remember how it is that this thing we call the world comes into being. As I noted then, the world isn’t sitting “out there” waiting for us to see it exactly as it is; what’s “out there,” scientists assure us, consists entirely of wholly unimaginable quantum-level stresses in the fabric of four-dimensional spacetime.  Those stresses impinge on our sense organs in certain strictly limited ways—did you notice the burst of neutrinos that went whizzing by just now? Neither did any other human being—and those sense organs trigger reactions in your nervous system; your mind then assembles those reactions into a coherent pattern, according to a template that’s partly biological, partly cultural, and partly individual, and that’s your world.

For most people, under most circumstances, the process of creating a world out of the fragmentary glimpses handed us by the senses isn’t a conscious thing. Still, it can be shaped by conscious action, and one of the most useful ways to shape the process is by changing the focus of attention.

This is something that every scientist learns early on in his or her university training. If you’re just beginning the study of botany, for example, odds are that you’ve only paid cursory attention to the trees and plants you see every day; you might be able to recognize a dozen species of trees and as many lawn and garden weeds, but how many people actually take the time, let’s say, to examine a blade of grass an inch at a time through a magnifying lens? As you study plant physiology and structure, put in the hours keying out plants in the laboratory, and tromp through the mud on field identification walks, what used to be a vague green background turns into something considerably richer: a galaxy of complex, meaningful structures that can be read and understood, and can teach you things that the uninstructed don’t notice. This plant tells you that the ground where it grows tends to be soggy in winter; that one tells you that the soil is poor in nitrogen; the tree up on the hill, which belongs to a species normally found far to the north, reveals the otherwise hidden history of climate change in your region over the last ten or twenty thousand years, and so on.

At the heart of that reshaping of awareness is a process of using concepts to focus the attention Before your first botany class, you may have looked at leaves on stems any number of times, but without the technical vocabulary of the botanist, it might never have occurred to you to notice the difference between those plants that have leaves in pairs on either side of the stem and those that have them unpaired—in botanical terms, between opposite and alternate habits. Simple and compound leaves, palmate and pinnate veins, entire, dentate, and serrate leaf edges, and the rest of the incantatory vocabulary of the field botanist: all of that permits botanists to communicate exact details of plant structure to one another, but it also, and crucially, focuses the attention of the novice botanist onto exactly those details that allow plant structure to be understood.

That sort of refocusing of attention on details that might otherwise be neglected is central to most kinds of education. It certainly plays a crucial role in magical training and initiation, and the use of concepts to focus attention is just as important to the neophyte occultist as it is to the beginner in botany. The astral light, as a concept, has a central part in that process. Whether or not you’ve had any previous exposure to occult philosophy, dear reader, and even if you consider the subject of this blog to be the worst sort of superstitious malarkey, imagine for a moment that there is such a thing as the astral light—a vast field of subtle substance streaming out from the Sun to fill the solar system and everything in it, intangible to the physical senses and to all the instruments so far devised, but clearly perceptible to certain less widely recognized capacities of human consciousness. Imagine that this field permeates your body and that of every other living and nonliving thing, and that the phenomena discussed in last month’s post are among its many effects.

That’s a core aspect of the universe as understood by traditional occult philosophy. Like the details of plant structure studied by botanists, it directs attention toward certain things that are otherwise very often neglected by the untrained.

Let’s take an example that may be familiar to some readers. Members of a certain generation used to talk about the “vibe” of a place, a person, or a situation: “The scene had a really groovy vibe early on, but once that dude in the leather vest showed up, man, the vibe got heavy in a hurry”—that sort of thing. It’s a convenient shorthand for a dimension of human experience that normally gets brushed aside as an irrelevance in modern industrial societies: one of many things we dump into the grab-bag category called “feelings” in English, and generally ignore.

Pay attention to the vibe or, if you prefer, the feeling that occurs in different places, though, and you may just begin to notice that it’s something distinct from other senses of the word “feeling,” such as your emotional states or the internal sensations produced by the nerve endings in your viscera. The more closely you attend to it, the more complex the experience becomes and the more likely it is to communicate information that has practical value. With practice, attending to the vibe becomes a sensory modality of remarkable complexity and power, as useful as eyes or ears.  I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve used it in unfamiliar towns to find used book stores and cheap dives with good food.  No, I don’t expect you to take that on faith; start directing attention to your surroundings in the way I’ve just suggested, and see what results you get.

(A digression about occult slang might be useful at this point. Most of the older systems of occult philosophy still in circulation use the 19th-century terminology of “planes,” and speak of the mental plane, the etheric plane, and so on; we’ll get to those and the common human experiences involved in them in a later post. The material plane, in this way of speaking, is the world as known by the five ordinary senses and instruments based on them: basically, the world as known by modern science.  The other two, or four, or six planes—depending on the specifics of the system of occult philosophy you’re studying—tend to get lumped together in ordinary conversation among mages as “the inner planes,” and the material world is called “the outer plane” It’s a very rough categorization but a useful one.

(The “vibe” or “feeling” we’ve been talking about belongs to the category of inner plane experiences, and when an inner plane experience checks out in material, verifiable terms, that’s called an “outer plane check.” Operative mages tend to pay close attention to outer plane checks, since those offer one of the very few ways to calibrate inner plane perceptions. When a perception turns out to be a dud—which of course does happen; inner plane perceptions are no more infallible than, say, eyesight, and suffer from their own equivalents of optical illusions and eye trouble—it’s not uncommon to hear the discomfited mage say something like, “Yeah, my outer plane check just bounced.”

(Which shows, if nothing else, that occultists have their own quirky sense of humor. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Well of Galabes post.)

The standard explanation in magical philosophy for what I’ve been calling vibes and feelings is that the astral light isn’t uniform; it’s influenced—colored or flavored, perhaps, depending on your choice of sensory metaphor—by a very broad range of phenomena, including human thoughts and feelings. These influences, in turn, can be sensed and interpreted by someone who’s taken the time to pay attention to them and learn how to read them.

Does this mean that there’s actually a vast field of subtle substance streaming outwards from the Sun, interpenetrating all things, picking up influences and communicating them to attentive minds? That’s an excellent question to which, as far as I know, nobody knows the answer. It may be that something exists that corresponds closely to the traditional concept. It may be that something very different is responsible.  It may be, for that matter, that “the astral light” is a convenient catchall term for several different effects that influence the human nervous system in various ways, and can be perceived and used by those who learn to pay attention to them.

We simply don’t know.  What we do know—“we,” here, meaning operative mages—is that if you approach “vibes” with the concept of the astral light in mind, and treat them as though they’re perceptions of a vast field of subtle substance, etc., you pretty reliably get certain useful results. Since, as previously noted, operative mages tend to be more interested in using magic than in proving its existence and efficacy to hostile skeptics, they don’t tend to worry too much about the matter.

The same vibes or feelings, by the way, are affected by time as well as by place. It’s not just that the color or flavor or whatever you want to call it changes over time as new influences overlie older ones; there appear to be cyclic processes that move through the astral light like tides, affecting different “vibes” in distinct ways. Most magical traditions thus include systems that allow these cycles to be tracked. Now of course that brings us up against another of the classic hot-button topics in this field, because the most widely known of these systems in the Western world just now is astrology. It’s not the only option by a long shot; operative mages, depending on their choice of occult philosophy and practice, may use the planetary hours, the tattwas, the velocia, or any of more than a dozen other systems; still, astrology’s the one the skeptics have heard of.

The standard pseudoskeptical arguments against astrology would in some ways have made an even better example of last month’s point than either homeopathy or acupressure, in that they’re among the most impressive displays of circular logic in contemporary pop culture. Why doesn’t astrology work? Because there’s no way for planets millions of miles away in space to affect events here on Earth. How do we know that there’s no way for planets to do that? Because scientists haven’t detected anything that would cause such effects. Have they looked? No, because there isn’t one, and we know that because astrology doesn’t work. Mix in an impressive degree of ignorance about the history and practice of astrology, and you’ve basically got the party line. It’s bad enough that schools of astrology routinely assign Objections to Astrology, the 1977 screed by Paul Kurtz et al, as required reading for students; there’s no better way to demonstrate that most critics of astrology literally know nothing about it.

Still, we can leave a more detailed discussion of that for a later post, because the value of astrology and its kindred systems in magical training doesn’t depend on whether the movement of planets through the astral light does in fact set up complex wave patterns that propagate throughout the solar system, with predictable effects for those of us surfing the astral light here on Earth. (That’s a standard explanation for astrology in the sort of old-fashioned occult philosophy I favor.) The point to systems of timing in magical training is that they focus attention on what, resorting again to metaphor, we may as well call the texture of time.  The standard scientific notion of time as a featureless continuum with no qualities of its own works well enough when you’re focusing on the kind of phenomena physicists study, but the closer your field of study gets to the subjective phenomena of consciousness, the less valid that notion becomes.

Pay attention to the vibe or feeling of different times, in fact, and it becomes hard to miss the fact that some times are better for certain activities than others. The conceptual language of magical timing systems focuses attention on that aspect of human experience, and helps the mage in training learn how to sense the changing textures of time and act in accordance with them. Mind you, a good case can be made that at least some of the cycles tracked by these systems have a reality that goes beyond their value as pedagogical tools, but again, that’s a point I don’t expect anyone to take on faith; the best way to explore that—the standard way in magical training of the old-fashioned sort, in fact—is to start using some such system on a daily basis, and see what kind of results you get.

So these perceptions I’m calling vibes or feelings vary with changes in place, and they also vary with changes in time. What else? Changes in activity, of course, and the kind of activity that matters most to the novice mage in training is ritual.

It so happens that certain patterns of human action—certain combinations of gesture, movement, vocalization, mental imagery, and focused intention—have effects on the vibe or feeling of the place where they’re done, at and after the time when they’re done. That’s one of the two factors behind ritual magic. The other is applied psychology, and this latter is probably the more important of the two; a vast amount of what can be done through magical practice depends utterly on the use of emotionally charged symbols, dramatic action, and an assortment of other means to reorient the unreasoning levels of the human mind. That said, what occult philosophy calls the astral light is also involved, and ritual, like so much else in occult training, functions as a pedagogical tool to direct attention toward that intangible but important factor.

Here’s how it works.  When you take up one of the classic systems of ceremonial magic, among the things you get assigned early on is a simple ritual, which is performed daily. The specific ritual varies somewhat from tradition to tradition, but it’s usually intended to produce, in the terms I’ve been using in this post, a balanced and healthy vibe—I suppose, given the recurrent reference to Sixties slang, I ought to say “a really groovy vibe, man” instead. It doesn’t have any more specific or practical purpose. You perform it daily, usually right before your daily meditation, and for the first few weeks or months, what you get out of it can be explained wholly by the psychological side of things.

Psychological devices, though, tend to lose their immediate emotional and cognitive impact with time and repetition. (There are other, subtler shifts in psychology that come from repeated ritual, but that’s a subject for a different post.) After the first few weeks or months, whatever emotional charge you got at first from doing a magical ritual fades; the cognitive effects settle into a rut; the ritual becomes familiar, and then dull, and tolerably often it strays over the line from merely dull into nightmarishly tedious for at least a little while in there. It’s usually around the time that this latter point is reached that you begin to notice that after you’ve done the ritual, something really did change in the place where you did it, and the change lingers there for a while before fading out into the background.

This is usually the make-or-break point in magical training. A certain number of students, no matter how enthusiastic they may have been up to that point, start to sense something happening in their ritual work that pretty clearly isn’t inside their heads, slam face first into the fact that what they’re doing is no longer just dress-up games and make-believe, and run like rabbits for the nearest exit. Even those who have the necessary gumption to stick with the training tend to freak out at this point; teachers of magic know to expect the panicked phone call or email from those of their students who actually do the work, and get used to reassuring those on the other end of these conversations that no, they’re not crazy, even though they just experienced something that our culture insists is impossible.

Once that point is passed, ritual becomes something more than an elegant system of do-it-yourself psychodrama—though it remains that, of course; psychology is an integral part of ritual. Once that point is passed, more broadly, magical practice in the richest sense of the word comes within reach, though there’s a great deal of learning and practical work that still has to be done to turn reach into grasp. It’s a lot of work, like anything else that matters. The one consolation is that it’s accessible to anyone who’s willing to put in the time and effort—or more precisely, anyone who’s willing to keep doing so in the face of the make-or-break point just mentioned.

It can be helpful to think of that point as the moment at which the astral light stops being a theory and turns into an experience. That’s a shock for people raised in modern Western industrial cultures, for reasons that go all the way down into the grimy crawlspaces of our collective worldview. Once you have to face the possibility that the astral light or something like it might actually exist, after all, you then have to face the possibility that it might be...

...inhabited.

We’ll talk about that next month.