Wednesday, October 25, 2006

EPA Considers Regulating Voodoo Practices

It's not exactly a proposal to license people who use magick or cast spells, but the EPA is considering regulating the use of mercury in Voodoo rituals. The article mentions that mercury is used in certain Latino and Afro-Caribbean religious practices, but there is no mention of whether or not it is used in African religions such as Yoruba which are the ancestors of Voudon and Santeria.

The use of mercury in these religions could make for some interesting historical research. European alchemical texts make frequent references to mercury, and if no link can be found between its use and Yoruba practices, this might indicate that European alchemy was one of the sources that contributed to the development of Afro-Caribbean religions in the New World.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Why We Need Skeptics

A lot of people in the magical community have a particularly low opinion of skeptics like James Randi and the folks who run The Skeptical Inquirer magazine. The feeling is mutual - skeptics have a pretty low opinion of people who work with any sort of magical or spiritual practice. Apparently anyone who believes in the effectiveness of ritual magick either (1) doesn't understand statistics or (2) believes in his or her paranormal abilities because of selective memory.

Robert Anton Wilson had some choice words for the skeptic movement in The New Inquisition, and I think that much of his assessment is accurate. A truly skeptical individual is open-minded rather than reactionary, and the idea that "fundamentalist materialism" is the end-all, be-all of human knowledge is itself a belief rather than a self-evident truth. Nonetheless, despite all of the skeptic movement's flaws, we need them.

From News of the Weird:

Of the 25,000 children homeless in the streets of Kinshasa, Kenya, more than half are believed to be there because their parents have disowned them as suspected "witches," according to an August Los Angeles Times dispatch. Said one 10-year-old: "They say I ate my father. But I didn't." [New York Times, 8-12-06] [Los Angeles Times, 8-29-06]

I've argued with a number of people over the years about whether or not it would be a good thing for mainstream science to recognize the effectiveness of magick. I know that my spells work - I have a degree in experimental psychology and have done plenty of statistical work assessing the effectiveness of my rituals. However, I think magicians are much better off if we are dismissed as harmless cranks as opposed to what I'm pretty sure that we are - people capable of shaping reality, at least to a degree.

In societies that accept the reality of magick there is a great deal of fear and distrust of anyone who might be involved in anything occult. Really, this is for the most part rampant paranoia. A person may be born with high magical aptitude, but the idea that a child could be a powerful and dangerous magician is laughable. It isn't that easy to influence others with spells, and most of us need years of practice and diligent training in order to make it work. I've been practicing in one form or another since I was 12 or 13 years old and it took me something like fifteen years before I could influence people and events reliably. Aptitude is only as good as the training that develops it, and that training takes a lot of time.

I've considered taking the "Randi Million Dollar Psychic Challenge" from time to time over the years, and I've even come up with a couple of experimental protocols that the Randi Foundation would probably accept. I might even be able to pass them, but I'm not really sure that doing so would be such a good idea. What would the effects be if I were to win Randi's million dollars and set in motion a series of events that would lead to a new round of witchcraft trials? Would the government decide that they needed to license magical practitioners, so that I wouldn't be able to engage in my spiritual path without their approval and oversight? I'd rather keep the mobs of peasants storming my "castle" in the old horror movies, thank you very much.

Honestly, I worry about people who seem obsessed with proving to the scientific community that magick is effective - what do they really hope to gain? In my experience too many of them are simply insecure about their practices and want some sort of external validation for what they feel like they should be doing. Honestly, in my opnion people who are that filled with doubt shouldn't practice magick - it's unlikely to do them any good.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Discursive Mind and the Face-Vase Illusion

Most of you at some point have probably seen a version of the Face-Vase Illusion, depicted above. It is a famous optical illusion that can be viewed either as two faces or as a vase, depending upon whether the dark or light field is taken to be the foreground. In addition to demonstrating how the human eye sees shapes, it can also be used as a valuable meditative training tool.

Ideally, in meditation you either want your mind focussed completely on a single idea or upon nothing at all. The former is usually referred to as insight-wisdom or concentrative meditation while the latter is referred to as calm abiding or formless meditation. Both techniques are very useful as part of a comprehensive spiritual practice. In either case, the goal of the meditator is to eliminate mental "chatter" that interferes with the goal of the meditation. The source of this mental chatter is referred to as the discursive mind in Buddhist teachings. As you become more accustomed to the chatter-free state of mind, your meditation will deepen and greater spiritual realization will emerge.

One of the key difficulties of this practice is recognizing when the discursive mind stops. You can't be sitting there on the cushion thinking over and over again "is my discursive mind stopped?" because, of course, if you're thinking such a thing it hasn't. The human mind is very good at learning to return to a given mental state once that state has been assimilated into consciousness, so it could be said that the greatest difficulty in meditation is recognizing what the mind feels like in its natural state, without any discursive chatter.

This is where the Face-Vase Illusion comes in. What the discursive mind spends its time doing is creating meaning. When you look at the illusion and see a face, your discursive mind is what is calling it a face. The same is true when you see a vase. Most people who look at the figure either settle on seeing one or the other, or switch back and forth between them creating a "flickering" effect. Try staring at the image for thirty seconds or so and you will see what I mean.

At the risk of sounding like the kid with the spoon in The Matrix, the key to using the Face-Vase Illusion as a training tool for meditation is to realize that there is no face and there is no vase. The image actually consists of regions of dark and light, nothing more. This is alluded to in the words of the Heart Sutra one of the principal texts of Mahayana Buddhism.

No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, object of thought.

Here's how to do it. Print out a copy of the optical illusion and place it at sitting eye level. I use a Tibetan cushion and sit cross-legged when I meditate but you can just as easily do it sitting in a chair. Just make sure that the optical illusion is in the center of your visual field. Then slightly unfocus your eyes and look forward. You will see one image first, then the other - but keep looking until you no longer see the face or the vase but a continuous image of light and shadow. When the discursive mind stops, the labels of "face" and "vase" will disappear and the image will no longer "flicker." It will just look like a flat pattern. This is how you can recognize the proper meditative state.

Usually this will happen within twenty minutes or so of sitting. The more you do it, the faster your state of consciousness should be able to shift. Once you are able to do it pretty much at will, try it at various points throughout the day and try to realize that everything you are seeing is actually just a field of color, light, and darkness. Part of being able to work magick is gaining conscious control over the meaning-creating function of the mind, and the first step in doing that is to become aware of its activity.