Christopher: How would you describe yourself?
Phil: I think of myself as a fairly ordinary person, just bobbling along pursuing stuff that interests me.
Christopher: In many of the so called Earth Religions there seems to be this rather romantic and friendly view of nature. Yet the first thing you seemed to see in growing up in Blackpool was that the sea was powerful, not controllable, it was dangerous and could kill you.
I see the same thing here in my desert where life and death or (are?) side by side and part of each other rather than separate and different. In fact all life feeds off the death of something else. If we are going to be what we call Nature Religions, don’t we need to really get to know nature and not work from our romantic fantasy view of it, sort of a Disneytized view of what nature is?
Phil: Absolutely, although I think this is a mammoth task. One of the themes I’m circling around on my blog is looking at the extent to which contemporary forms of occultism are rooted in Cartesian dualism the idea that mind and world are entirely separate.
This is why the work on perception and the environment by theorists such as Tim Ingold and phenomenologists such as Merleu-Ponty interest me so much. I’m very interested in attempting to write about magical practice in a way that doesn’t reinforce that inner-outer ‘divide’ you so often find in ‘western’ representations of magic.
Christopher: You have mentioned that would struck you about nature was its wildness and not being in control of it. Yet many magical systems are about gaining and keeping control, or at least the illusion of it.
Are there times when we need to have things out of control, to learn that even in magic a lot of things are not ours to control in the first place and that magic can take us to dangerous and unexpected places? Do we need to understand a wildness in magic, even as we need to understand the wildness of nature?
Phil: Well, control is a very complex issue isn’t it? I know for example that one of the reasons I was attracted to magic in the first place was the promise of acquiring some degree of ‘control’ agency if you like over my life, which I felt I lacked. I think that one of the reasons I was so attracted to the idea of ‘results magic’ is the idea that you can effect change in the world without it changing you back, without ‘consequences’ and so reinforcing my sense of being ‘powerful’ in the world.
Not long ago I was put in a situation where I was told I was going to be ‘downsized’ and there was absolutely nothing I could do to influence the decision. I spent at least a week walking around feeling sick to my stomach; the feeling that there was absolutely nothing I could do about this was awful. It passed though, but during that period I made some poor decisions which were largely motivated by that fear.
I’d agree though that recognising that magic can take us to some unexpected places, is worth thinking through for me, that’s always been the crux of the matter being open to surprise from an unexpected direction. Dangerous though? I’m not sure about that.
Christopher: I know that it was the magic part that attracted to me even into Wicca. Danger is one of the excuses used not to teach teenagers magic, because of their constant roller coaster emotional ride makes for poor choices and decisions. Then there is unexpected consequences. We get results but in some other way than we expected.
In Wicca we have a few people afraid of using magic at all for fear it might even accidently cause unexpected harm to someone.
How much of this fear is overblown from your experience? Have you run into any areas where you felt yourself to be in danger in your magical practice?
Phil: I think in part, it relates to control and the inherent unpredictability of magic. As you say, results come “in some other way than we expected”. Despite much gassing about magic being a science it still doesn’t have that 1-to-1 repeatability – do ritual x and you will have result y – has it?
I actually think it’s okay to be have concerns about it. Many years ago, whilst I was training to be a therapist, I had an experience which comes to mind on this subject. I was working in a psychiatric dept and my boss and I were doing this ‘guided visualisation’ walking a group of clients into a forest. Fairly innocuous stuff you might think. Suddenly there’s a bang and this old geezer is out of his chair, out of the room and down the corridor.
So I checked up on him and he said that last time he’d been in a forest (in similar circumstances to the journey scenario) was in 1940, listening to the rest of his platoon being machine-gunned by Germans. Neither me or my boss were expecting anyone to react in the way this guy did to what we thought was a ‘safe’ exercise.
This whole danger/safety thing needs further discussion and unpacking, I think. What I had in mind in answering your last question was the whole notion of “If you invoke demons your house will burn down, and you will go mad and think you’re the reincarnation of Aleister Crowley’s pet hamster” which I think is, well, something of an overstatement.
Christopher: Have you run into any areas where you felt yourself to be in danger in your magical practice?
Phil: I certainly used to worry a lot. I once got really worried because I’d been imagining myself doing the LBR whilst lying in bed and fell asleep before I got to the end. And yes, I’ve done quite a bit of that drama-queen posturing of “this ritual is a symbolic death. I might really die. Please, dear soror, pass on my collection of monographed socks to the British Museum.” Ahem.
But yes, I have felt myself to be in danger. Being walked blindfold onto the point of a very sharp athame in a room full of people comes to mind for a start. Certainly I had a moment of “Oh shit, what if…”
Christopher: I know in my own magical experience, there comes a question of how much of what I am doing is necessary, and how much is merely decoration? Usually when we think of magic, we think of ceremony, tools, movement and chants and what have you? It is certainly good theater, but is all of it necessary? What about magic in day to day life, where it might not be possible to do full ceremony?
Phil: All you really need is to remember that you have a body. Yes, it’s nice to do ‘big ritual’ occasionally in the way you describe, but I really think we need to break down this distinction between ritual space and day-to-day-life space.
Much of the tantra practice I do is oriented towards ‘day-to-day life’ and ‘big ritual’ doesn’t necessarily translate into heightened intensities. I’ve had some really intense experiences as by-products of really simple rituals, with not much in the way of props and limited space for flouncing around.
Christopher: We humans have this habit of anthropomorphizing, be it nature, animals or the gods. This makes us think all these things act and react much like we do. But they are not humans, not the animals, not nature, and certainly not the gods. How can we find out what they really are unless we stop trying to fit them into a human box? So I go back to the beginning, the gods are powerful forces. I have no idea of whether they have personalities, or names, or if they need them. I know sometimes they appear to do things in my favor and occasionally help. I don’t know why. What are your thoughts on the god/desses?
Phil: I am a devotee of Lalita (‘loveliness’). She is everywhere and in everything; transcendent and imminent simultaneously, I feel her ‘presence’ in all moments of joy, surprise, wonder.
“Let my idle chatter be the muttering of prayer, my every manual movement the execution of ritual gesture, my walking a ceremonial circumambulation, my eating and other acts the rite of sacrifice, my lying down prostration in worship, my every pleasure enjoyed with dedication of myself, let whatever activity is mine be some form of worship of you.”
Christopher: What was different about Chaos Magic from other systems of magic that drew you to it for awhile?
Phil: I first encountered what came later to be described as ‘Chaos Magic’ through two texts – Peter J. Carroll’s ‘Liber Null’ and Ray Sherwin’s ‘The Book of Results’ – in the late 1970s, and engaged with the latter text first.
This was because I’d come to Austin Osman Spare a few years earlier and found it quite easy to get into the practice of casting sigils. In fact it was Spare’s work which got me interested in magic in the first place. Between 1979-80 I was doing a correspondence course in Qabalah, and was getting ticked off by my mentor because I told him I was doing sigils.
I didn’t really start doing anything with Liber Null until 1981, by which time I was in a Wiccan coven and the High Priestess encouraged me to “find out more about this chaos stuff”. I think what initially attracted me to Liber Null was the idea that all magical ‘techniques’ were essentially similar, regardless of the context they appeared in – and also the idea that you could take material from outside of what’s considered to be the ‘occult corpus’ – such as fiction. I’d already made some moves in this direction – having done some rituals inspired by Lovecraft’s fiction between 1979-80.
I think Chaos Magic was, for me, an arena for experimentation, although it didn’t really become dominant in my strands of practices until the late 1980’s.
Just to give some more background – I first became interested in Tantra in 1982, following a series of recurring dreams in which the goddess Kali loomed large, but again, this didn’t become a dominant theme for me until the late 1980s.
I read Robert Anton Wilson’s & Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy in 1985, and began to work with the discordian goddess Eris around that time – but I was approaching Eris very much through a Wiccan framework, being still in contact with the coven I’d joined in 1981.
In fact I didn’t really begin to focus heavily on what was then becoming known as Chaos Magic until around 1986, after I’d left the coven and started to strike out on my own.
I’d moved to Leeds by then, which was a kind of melting pot for experimental magic, and got involved with the Chaos scene there – as well as hooking up with people who were experimenting with Lovecraftian magic, Tantra, and politically-oriented Pagan activism. The ‘urban shamanism trilogy’ of chapbooks (you can find them on www.philhine.org.uk as pdfs) were written in this period, and, together with a few friends, I started publishing a monthly pagan ‘zine – Pagan News (again, there’s some pdf-ed issues on the website).
This was a very vibrant time for me – I was doing a hell of a lot of magical experimentation in different directions – and involved with several groups simultaneously.
In 1991 I moved to London, and because a high proportion of the people I knew were involved in the chaos magic scene down there, Chaos Magic came to dominate my approach to magic. I’d already written two short chapbooks on Chaos Magic – ‘Condensed Chaos’ and ‘Chaos Servitors’ – both based on stuff I’d been doing in Leeds, but these didn’t get released until I hit London – to be followed (in 1993) by the first edition of Prime Chaos – which I’d been working on since 1988. I did quite a few workshops, lectures, etc., both in the UK and in Europe/America – latterly through being a member of the IOT.
It was through the American head of the IOT – the late Bob Williams, that I managed to get a deal with what was then New Falcon Publications, who went on to publish ‘Condensed Chaos’. a heavily revised ‘Prime Chaos’, and my little chapbook on Lovecraftian magic – ‘The Pseudonomicon’, which remains my favourite of the three.
All the way through this heavily chaos magic-oriented period, I was still pursuing my interests in tantra, and by 1995 was running, with my partner, a tantrically-oriented group – and were in contact with other tantrically-inclined folk in the UK (AMOOKOS). We were also regular participants in a kind of free-form, dance-oriented pagan group called ‘the Mad Shamans’.
Christopher: At what point did you come to the conclusion it was time to move on to something else?
Phil: It wasn’t that simple. One of the reasons I’ve answered the previous question with so much ‘biographical’ info is to highlight that I’ve always – until fairly recently – had several irons in the fire at once, and these irons were often related to the different networks of friends I was moving in.
I’ve friends for example, from my period of being Wiccan-dominant who still invite me to gatherings and I’m sometimes amazed how easily I can slide back into that framework for ritual work – it’s like ‘coming home’ in a way.
But, to answer your question, I think I’d hit a point where I’d become dissatisfied with some of the patterns I’d let myself become habituated to. Firstly, I came to realise that a lot of my own practice had become workshop-orientated – by which I mean that I was doing stuff with a view to turning it into a workshop session, rather than for its own sake. So that had to stop.
Secondly, I left the IOT in 1996 (or thereabouts) and in so doing, lost contact with that particular network of chaos people. Thirdly, my tantric practice, which had become increasingly dominant for me, was what I wanted to concentrate on (don’t forget I’d been pursuing this on and off since 1982). This latter point might help understand one of my problems with Chaos Magic as an approach.
One of CM’s primary assertions is that magic can be formulated in terms of ‘techniques’ and that the theoretical underpinnings or cultural-historical context in which those ‘techniques’ appear isn’t really important. A good example would be the idea of ‘mantras’.
The term mantra is now used fairly widely in books on modern magic to denote any iterative repetition of a word or phrase – so something you’ll sometimes see advocates of CM asserting is that singing rune charms and repeating Hindu mantras are essentially the same procedure – the forcus being on the repetition of a word or phrase – in order to enter an altered state of consciousness. So mantras are something that gets chanted – and the chanting (i.e. the iteration) is what’s important – not the content or the context.
This, to me, is a kind of reductionism. It predicates a universal explanation – that the ‘technique’ of iterative speech is enacted in order to establish an altered state of consciousness in the practitioner – and subordinates all instances which apparently look as though that’s what’s going on – to it. So for an advocate of CM, there would be little practical difference between, say, chanting a rune poem, repeating the Gayatri mantra, or singing a sea shanty.
This kind of reductionism isn’t unique to CM though – it’s a recurrent theme throughout a great deal of contemporary magical writing regardless of genre (or ‘tradition’) and, I would argue, has its roots in early 20th century efforts to create universalist explanations of religion and magic as seperate categories of discourse. A further problem, IMO, is that this kind of reductive explanation is conservative – it reinforces “what we already know”
to be the case and elides the possibility of difference.
So, to go back to ‘mantras’ – if you ‘know’ that mantras are essentially about chanting, I’d say that it is less likely for you to try and find out if there is anything else which is interesting about them – like the context in which tney appear – what they mean, and what theories inform them. I think this is a classic example of the kind of reductive approach to magical ideas that I have come to be critical of – it’s a kind of cultural tourism where subjects such as Tantra are exoticised but rewritten so that that they are made familiar, and anything different is brushed away as being incompatible with an assumed ‘western’ mindset or dismissed entirely as inconsequential.
In contrast, I’d say that actually knowing something about the languages, cultures and histories in which the practices I’m engaged in emerged from not only is interesting generally, for me, it actually enriches my practice. The two feed into each other and support each other. In fact, I’d say that in order to take an approach to Tantra that draws from historical texts (as opposed to formations such as ‘Western Tantra’) then its pretty much unavoidable – because they’re not going to make much sense unless one does attempt to engage with the context around the practices.
I tend to talk about the approach I’m taking to Tantra as being ‘hybridised’ – because I’m not trying to just take practices from say, India’s ‘medieval’ period and replicate them in a contemporary context – I’m trying to fuse them with some ‘western’ theoretical positions that I feel resonate with them
very well – hence on my new group blog project (http://enfolding.org)
I’m writing about facets of tantra using the ideas of modern philosophers such as Deleuze or Merleau-Ponty, or the emerging field of embodied cognition, which challenges the mind-body divide that so much of western culture is dominated by.
Some other of my current interests – such as how Victorian occult movements – particularly the Theosophical Society – have shaped contemporary occultism, have come about partly because I became interested in how Tantric ideas first streamed into Western occultism, and partly because I was (very briefly) involved in the Theosophical Society during my initial phase of getting interested in the occult.
My most recent writings – apart from the tantra-oriented material, are more historically-oriented – looking at particular ‘moments’ in occult history and attempting to analyse them in terms of their wider cultural contexts. So I’ve just had published (in Abraxas magazine) an examination of the life and works of Lobsang Rampa; and have just finished a monograph on the Leadbeater sex-scandals in the Theosophical Society and how they relate to debates about sexuality and the occult in the early 20th century.
Christopher: Is there anything else that you think might be important for our readers to know?
Phil: I suppose my publishers Original Falcon Press would like me to mention that my books on Chaos Magic – Condensed Chaos, The Pseudonomicon, and Prime Chaos are being made available again.