Gods, Theurgy, Philosophical Schools, and Community

There is a lot of weirdness in contemplation. After I pray to Apollon in the mornings, I simply breathe. If everything inside can be calmed (not halted, but calmed), it is possible to rest in an inner place, where light seems to stream and where I know there is something true waiting to be coaxed out. It is the place of sudden insight, of stillness, of the steady magnetism that lingers after one looks into the eyes of a sacred image and closes one’s eyes. It is only a shadow of the intensity of experience after I read Hermias in spring 2019 and the words rang into my soul like very loud gongs, when everything around me suddenly seemed both real and not real and there was nothing and everything and something.

I receive newsletters from my alma mater, and Jay Garfield was featured in the “faculty doing interesting things” section, shortly before the “heyyyy donate???” button in the one I opened this week. He had done a podcast interview with Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine with wide distribution in the United States. One of my close classmates in college had studied with him and had gone on the intensive Buddhism studies January term excursion in North India, where there is a Tibetan Buddhism school in exile. So — I clicked on it out of curiosity, and while I didn’t listen to it, modern website clickbait drew me to an article, which I finally read last night.

The piece, Alex Tzelnic’s “The Dangerous Art of Depersonalization,” discusses the sordid side of Buddhist meditation techniques when they are not undertaken appropriately, and much of the piece is framed around a specific dancer’s suicide after she had a deep experience of no-self that she couldn’t pull herself out of alone. The article contains many comparisons between Buddhist meditative techniques and psychedelics, and it argues that one reason for experiences like that dancer’s going so horribly wrong is that the West tends to make teachings modular and commercial instead of emphasizing to students — in the face of every awful collective tendency in American culture — that the teachings must be a whole, united into a lifestyle, and that lifestyle includes flesh-and-blood teachers and the presence of other people. Only others who are more experienced can help people frame intense meditative experiences so a person is properly able to integrate it into their life:

Granted, as the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has made clear, even with proper support, depersonalization can be deeply unsettling. The Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young has described such experiences of no self as “Enlightenment’s Evil Twin.” In a 2011 blog post, he wrote, “This is serious but still manageable through intensive, perhaps daily, guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.” As with the experience of shamans-in-training, or psychedelics, Young emphasizes the continuous guidance and support that allow for the intensity of the experience to be enfolded into the spiritual journey. Just as psychedelics taken outside of a clinical setting are more likely to result in bad trips, in the absence of the Three Jewels, secularized meditation in the West runs the risk of inducing profound experiences without the proper tools to process them. Taking a page from the secularized process of psychedelic research, accounting for set and setting could go a long way toward supporting the depersonalization that can occur when “one” becomes “none.”

(second to last paragraph of the article)

Buddhism’s “Three Jewels” — the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha — are, according to the author and the Buddhist teacher being drawn from in the quotation above, the place where practitioners can take refuge during their journey, the exact support networks they need in most cases. Even if a person needs medical intervention, a supportive community is essential for making sure one gets appropriate care. I would argue that, in a Platonizing religious framework, one could develop a similar triad – the Gods, the teachings, and the specialist community — if one wanted to translate a model like that, although I am pretty sure that this is a “octagonal peg triangular hole” situation. To consider this sincerely, using the idea of refuge, we need to think of a fourfold model: the Gods, theurgic ritual, philosophical grounding, and community.

The Gods are the wellspring of all things, and their eros pronoetikos envelops all things here below; we take it in as naturally as breathing. They are also the source of trust: The Gods are prefect, and they are the fountains and sources of all. They care about everything in the cosmos, as we learn in the Laws, and they will exercise their care. Theurgic acts are what completes the circuit of communication with them, bringing to bear material elements — statues, incense, milk, wine, honey, tea, herbs, grain, meat, timing, utterance, harmony — in an organized fashion to come into a space of resonance with them. Philosophical grounding is what provides the framework and context for these acts, and the community is what creates the necessary checks and balances for thriving. In a Platonizing sense, I once heard Edward Butler compare philosophical discussion and community to the feasting-place in the Phaedrus where the Gods come together, an echo of something that is too perfect and beautiful to be described with human language.

But that’s not what we have nowadays at all. When that thing happened a few years ago, I was all alone with my books and devotional practice, just like the people mentioned in the Buddhism piece learning niche meditation techniques from an app and reading sutras alone, people for whom the closest contact with others in the practice of interest may be social media. There was nobody to decompress with, and certainly nobody who could help with framing. What I did say to people was guarded, and I quickly downplayed it because I had the sense discussion wasn’t welcome even though I felt like words in my throat were burning to be let out. Talking through details and what it meant seemed absolutely impossible in the (para)social hell I was in — at best, a narcissistic demand for emotional labor from parasocials, at worst, an invitation for someone to take advantage of my vulnerability while concealing a sharp knife hungry for my heart. At any rate, it wasn’t something for public consumption. It would have been completely different had I had something like a sangha. It wasn’t something I could talk to my Wiccan mom about because she is my mom and I felt too vulnerable and I wasn’t sure the terminology in my head would translate into the jargon she knew. I had been in therapy for a few years at that point, but suddenly, I was mentally OK with what I had been in therapy about and was able to do what I had to do to manage the issues — so I graduated from it, even while still spinning dizzily from soul stuff. Everyone learning Platonism in Late Antiquity would have had people to go to — the philosophers’ students scattered among cities like dandelion seeds. In a Platonizing sense that draws from what was, yes, there are philosophers, but many of the philosophers’ students and inner and wider circles were not philosophers, nor were they theologians and hieratic officiants. There were (and are) people from all walks of life who had (and have) an interest.

And this train of thought brought me back to the SHWEP episode I’d heard earlier yesterday.

E: We can contrast Plotinus’ actual approach as reported by Porphyry, which is that all comers [are] accepted in the philosophic seminar, he’s this really generous guy that everyone’s entrusting with their children because he’s, like, this super trustworthy, lovely cat, and Iamblichus, while being much more hieratic, maybe, in his ways, still is consorting with his students all the time. He’s deeply social. He’s deeply sociable. He’s not just some kind of hierophant off in the distance being unapproachable.

G: And, you know, that’s the interesting thing. As much as I admire contemporary magical traditions that are trying to appropriate Iamblichean theurgy or Neoplatonism, there seems to be an almost — um, how do I put it? — slightly inauthentic-to-me kind of caricature of what they think a hierophant is, and so people might wear certain sorts of costumes, or, you know, present themselves with specialized names, or – and, and have a sort of presentation like, like it’s a show. Like it’s the Hierophant Show, and you can be part of my scene, and enter into my hierophantic circle, in which I am the center and you can revolve around. And it just becomes an unfortunate distortion of what I think Plotinus and Iamblichus, in my, at least, as I understand it, what they were like. Which was, “Come on and hang out with me. We’re gonna talk about deep ideas and deep experiences and take a walk and not create —”

E: I dig what you’re saying, but, but — [slight conversation shift into the bath house conjuring episode, it’s a fascinating discussion, go listen]

SHWEP Episode 140: Gregory Shaw on the Phenomenology of Iamblichean Theurgy

I am not in a contemporary magical tradition, but having those words from someone in the back of my mind when I read the Tricycle article is one reason why the article felt so poignant. I had seen so many people have a spiritual experience and then start up a religious officiant service charging people money and making themselves into some kind of Influencer. That’s the current cultural zeitgeist for what people do when something happens, regardless of if they were actually able to get through the experience or not, and regardless of whether or not they know what they’re doing. That wasn’t what I wanted after my own supernova moment. I wanted to learn about the soul, the Gods, and how everything from the cosmic web to spidersilk fits together. I wanted to have that restful experience of presence after prayer and to be around people who knew exactly what that was. I wanted to learn deep things, but in a trustworthy setting, not in a capitalist spiritual marketplace. I was never suicidal, but I can see how someone could be and how that could be disastrous without community guardrails and safety nets. The sangha, the community, is what protected Porphyry from taking his life when he took Plotinus’ teachings down a lightless road instead of the bright path — Plotinus stopped him.

Recently, I’ve been compiling thoughts like fire about the soul and embodiment cycles. Some are written down in a Google Doc, and others are still cooking. A big difference between me several years ago and me today is that Zoom is a thing, and I’ve been able to talk to other people more often. I came into a place of gratitude this morning after vacuuming because, after voicing some thoughts midweek and wrestling with ideas with someone else (we still disagree) in some lively debate, I became extremely grateful for the stabilizing effect of community.

The depersonalization article and the prior conversations let me reflect on how my own experiences — which have impacted how I view the self, even if I don’t buy into the no-self thing of the Buddhists and instead see it as the soul once we subtract out its mistaken identification with its accretionary garments that it acquires in descent and across lifetimes — could stand to be safeguarded against dualism more keenly. I think others into mysticism may know what I’m getting at. There’s this moment when you know that you do not have things like species, sex, and so on, and you start Marie Kondoing your accretions, and it turns out that you’re even more into minimalism than you thought (and that perhaps minimalism is an externalization of the soul’s desire to return to the One?). But of course many of these things, be they accidentals from a current incarnation or just accreted garments, do matter in the world. Each of our allotments involves coming to terms with the social fluff and baggage surrounding all of this, and the broader societal context — the good, the bad, the meh — is itself sacred because it is a crucial part of establishing the symbola and synthēmata involved in theurgy. A vacuum of community, or a faux community made up of “followers,” cannot close the gap.


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