Kali is a woman. Jupiter is a man. Athena is a virgin, but obviously a woman. Loki is sometimes transsexual, but he is a “he”, a man. Angels are asexual, but are also masculine. Baphomet is … what, bisexual, hermaphrodite, something, yet in a masculine way, right? He, Baphomet. At least, that was my unquestioning assumption, until one day the insight arose in me, that Baphomet is not a man.
The spirits are just as diverse in their sexuality as we are, and gender, grammatical and otherwise, is just as complex an issue on the subtle planes of existence as it is on our mundane one.
Instead of boring my readers with a long essay on sex, gender, their distinction, and their interplay and dynamics, here is a magical exercise inspired by an online Gender workshop (not magical) which I came across a few years ago. In preparation for the following working, I suggest at least scanning parts of this workshop, to get into the right mood.
Design a gender neutral sigil. Take your time, this is tricky, and it is also part of the exercise. Once you are satisfied, set it up in your favorite ritual space. Altar. Coffee table. Whatever.
Banish as follows: Think of an attractive person, notice the gender you attribute to them. Now deliberately “drop” the gender attribution by saying aloud (or thinking) the words “what a beautiful human being”. Notice the change in attitude and interest this brought about. Make a sweeping gesture to spread this new attitude all around.
Speak out loud: “It is my intention to communicate with a truly gender-neutral spirit now.”
Meditate in whatever posture you like, first staring at the sigil, then after a while closing your eyes and keeping your focus on the afterimage of the sigil until it fades. After some time, usually around ten to fifteen minutes, you will have had a vision or a reverie, or engaged in some other form of communication with the truly gender-neutral spirit whose sigil you created. Observe their appearance, visual or otherwise. Discuss a gender related subject with them. This is where having read parts of the previously linked online workshop is very useful.
When you are done, thank them and inhale then exhale deeply a few times.
Banish by doing a mildly sexual gesture, such as the sign of the fig or an erect middle finger, in the four cardinal directions.
Write down what you remember of your exchange with the spirit. Or, if you prefer, keep a recording device running during your meditation and dictate your experience to it.
Reviewing the recorded material is very revealing. The spirit is truly gender-neutral, therefore any discernible gender in their appearance must be on the part of our perception. This will make previously unnoticed preconceptions and stereotypes visible, for instance how I used to think of Baphomet as masculine.
In The Spell of the Sensuous (1997) ecologist and philosopher David Abram examines how our minds have become severed from sensory experience, and â€“ consequently â€“ our bodies disconnected from the natural world.
The blame for our current ecological plight he allocates predominantly to alphabetic writing, which destroyed the link between meaning and its basis in our physical participation in the processes and qualities of the natural world.
When linguistic signs become based on arbitrary vocal sounds (in contrast to pictographic symbols), then: â€œthe larger, more-than-human life-world is no longer a part of the semiotic, no longer a necessary part of the systemâ€ (1997: 101). Consequently,
our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs […] Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses […] become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (1997: 267)
Specifically, it was the ancient Greeks who led us into this sorry state. â€œSocrates forced his interlocutors to separate themselves, for the first time, from their own wordsâ€ (1997: 109). Myths and stories formerly provided a union with nature, which Plato’s writings undermined and destroyed. In an oral culture, a term such as â€œJusticeâ€ always has a context: it is expressed in stories as a specific occurrence, as an event that actually took place. Yet â€œSocrates attempts to induce a reflection upon the quality as it exists in itselfâ€ (1997: 111), and so we arrive â€“ via Plato â€“ at the sense of Justice as a thing-in-itself, an abstract entity with an existence somehow independent from the physical world. There is now scope for belief in a realm of ideas separate from nature, and Abram’s complaint is that we have become increasingly lost in this Platonic invention.
Abram’s book has been influential. His evocation of the role of sensation and perception in human cognition is powerful and compelling. He offers a philosophical foundation for shamanistic and ecological magicks. Yet I am troubled by his demonisation of Platonism, and his privileging of the body and nature above soul and intellect.
If, as Abram suggests, the invention of phonetic writing sealed us within a world of human signs, excluding the other in the body, in non-human species and the natural environment, then our conception of soul or spirit is a harmful, autistic delusion.
However, surely by coincidence, the very next book I read after Abram’s makes a similar but opposite argument. In The Primitive Edge of Experience (2004), psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden writes of a basic mode of human experiencing that he names â€œthe autistic-contiguous positionâ€:
Sequences, symmetries, periodicity, skin-to-skin â€œmoldingâ€ are all examples of contiguities that are the ingredients out of which the beginnings of rudimentary self-experience arise. (2004: 32)
The elements of this level of experience, which first appears in early infancy, are perceptual sensations of bodily contact, hardness or softness, being rocked, rhythms of appearances and disappearances, all of which: â€œhave nothing to do with the representation of one’s affective states, either idiographically or fully symbolically. The sensory experience is the infantâ€ (2004: 35).
Yet whereas Ogden concurs with Abram that the use of language or symbolisation detracts from experience at this autistic-contiguous level, in Ogden it lacks the Edenic quality evoked by Abram’s writing. For Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is â€œpreparatory for the creation of symbolsâ€ (2004: 59), and to dwell exclusively within it presents a dilemma of becoming â€œentrapped in sensory experienceâ€ (2004: 78). For Abram, the sensory is primary and language is an autistic detraction. For Ogden, sensation attracts the label of â€œautismâ€, yet without any sense of pathology, because this type of non-reflective experience provides an essential â€œbounded sensory ‘floor’ […] of experienceâ€ (2004: 45), â€œthe beginnings of qualities of who one isâ€ (2004: 54).
For Abram, the turning in upon human signs results in alienation from the body. But for Ogden, the turning in upon sensory experience results in a basic sense of self on top of which further maturational developments may accrue. Both writers are exploring similar territory, but from opposing points of view. Placing these authors beside one another, perhaps we start to see how this â€œautismâ€, the reflexive turning in upon oneself, is perhaps not by definition detrimental. And perhaps neither is sensation or symbolisation necessarily malign or benign. Increasingly, it may seem that we are labouring beneath a false opposition between the body and spirit.
Abram himself recognises a flaw in his privileging of the sensory and those indigenous means of apprehending the world that are deeply rooted in it. â€œIf our primordial experience is inherently animistic,â€ he wonders, â€œhow can we ever account for the loss of such animateness from the world around us?â€ (1997: 90). The argument that x is our primary mode of being, but that x has been forgotten, contains a glaring contradiction that the forgetting of x is evidently more primary than x itself. In that case, perhaps the ecological crisis is not a consequence of the invention of writing so much as the forgetting of nature because our (even more) primary mode of being is, perhaps, forgetfulness. Indeed, for Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is a â€œpositionâ€ (2004: 11), a kind of stance or attitude that may be lost, or into which we may fall at any time, if more sophisticated levels of being are placed under stress. Our fundamental mode of being is maybe neither sensory nor cognitive, neither bodily nor spiritual. Perhaps our fundamental mode of being consists in not having a fundamental mode of being.
Enlightenment traditions present themselves as the antidote to habitual forgetfulness. Techniques for realising the absence of a fundamental self rely on cultivating a turning inwards, a kind of intentional autism that contrasts with the reactive type that both Abram and Ogden evoke. Within enlightenment traditions, it does not appear to matter what the objects of that turning inwards might be, whether sensations, thoughts or meritorious actions. The intention is to realise how whatever fills experience is not fundamentally what we are, because it is not invulnerable to forgetting.
Applying this to magickal practice, my view is that magick is wherever we find it. There are body magicks and shamanistic nature magicks. But there are also word and number magicks, and magicks of abstract contemplation. They are not of equal value, but neither is one of them necessarily of greater value than all the rest.