Author Archives: David Metcalfe

Music, Meditation, and the Skull as a Sound Chamber

The ancient Tibetan metaphysical texts state that all sound is music, all music is mantra, and mantra is the essence of all sound. Through the use of ritual and mantric power, the Tibetans use sound to effect a specific change in the individual and the environment.

Mantra is a pattern of sound or sound vibration that is based upon primordial sound structures. By their sheer inherent potency and disciplined execution, these concentrated essential energies bring about direct spiritual phenomenon.

— From the liner notes for Cho-ga, Tantric & Ritual Music of Tibet (Teldec, 1974, LP)

When I was in college I worked at a small music store, often doing 10-hour days with no managerial supervision. This meant that for four years I was privy to an intense engagement with a wide range of music on a daily basis, including everything from Edith Piaf to Throbbing Gristle, and some of the more obscure pleasures in between.  Faced with my own predilections, as well as those of the regular customers, I became interested in deleting my preferences, or more importantly, my distaste for certain types of music.

When you work in an environment like that, it’s easy to become a smug connoisseur. While I won’t claim to have avoided that arrogance altogether, I did pursue a program to erase my preferences by using some of the insights I gained from my academic focus on ritual and cognitive philosophy.  After four years’ worth of 10-hour shifts, if you’re too picky about what you listen to, you’ll quickly go insane or become a raging asshole.

Each day while driving to work or school, I would randomly choose a radio station by spinning the dial and letting it land wherever it wanted. Then I would enjoy whatever music I encountered. I would enjoy it even if I hated it, and during commercials, because I was brainwashing myself and wasn’t interested in letting others brainwash me, I would turn the dial between stations and listen to white noise. White noise also replaced the station if I landed on talk radio during the random spin. Again, I was interested in brainwashing myself, not letting others do it to me, and this experiment was not about learning to enjoy propaganda but opening up my musical preferences.

When I described the experiment to my collegiate advisor, he warned me that I was playing with fire and could end up erasing preferences that were crucial for having a self-identity in society.  However, I knew that initiation, even self-initiation, is a dance with a purifying flame, so I ignored all warnings and continued on.
Read the rest of this entry

Philosophy as Martial Art in the Shadow of Apocalypse

De Umbris Idearum: the shadows of ideas. Giordano Bruno used this as the title of one of his treatises on the art of memory. As thematic inspiration for this weekly column, the notion of shadows is taken for its most expansive potential. Everything we encounter in the environment is in some way a shadow of an idea, whether in nature, where our interpretation of what we encounter is predicated on a complex assemblage of conceptual precedents, or in the social world of artifice, where everything from our cell phones to the buildings we live in are in some ways the physical shadows of someone’s idea.

Meditation and contemplative practice, in many traditions, are tools for overcoming some of the inherent problems that come from dealing in shadows. Think of yourself on a darkened street. You see a tall figure moving towards you from an alleyway. Unsure of whether facing friend or foe, the mind immediately moves to react in the way best suited for survival. If friend, the shadow will be no threat, but if enemy, then without the proper attention, we could face injury or death. It makes sense, then, to react immediately in defense rather than taking a chance on becoming a victim. But this is nevertheless a very taxing way to go about things. What if one could more clearly judge potential threats or potential benefactors? In the material realm, this is a key to the practice of martial arts. In the mental and spiritual realm, this is the key to the practice of philosophy.
Read the rest of this entry

In Praise of Hellfire & Brimstone

“Another night as the holy Father entered the church he saw the evil one seated, as it were, with a paper in his hand which he appeared to be reading by the light of the lamp, and his hand was hideous to behold and furnished with iron claws. The saint approached him, and asked him what he was reading. “I am reading the sins of thy brethren,” was the reply. Then the blessed Dominic laid hold of the paper, and commanded him in the name of God to give it up, which he was forced to do. And the saint found written therein several things wherein the brethren had transgressed, for which he duly corrected them.”

— From Augusta Theodosia Drane, The History of St. Dominic, Founder of the Friars Preachers (1891)

Given the rabid religious rhetoric of the American Right, it’s easy to hate those who speak the devil into existence. There is something absurd about seeing some sweating, mad-eyed preacher ranting about the evils of sin and blasphemy when you know damn well that the preacher isn’t even half as holy as a hustler on the corner squeezing pennies from passing executives. This becomes even more prevalent as we approach the elections, and those crippled political clowns dance around with plastic faces seeking to abuse our favor.  Look in the eyes of these folks and all you see is blatant insanity.

Despite the fact that it’s all too often mentioned by these hatefully perverse pretenders, there is still something sweet about hellfire.  It’s that diabolical fire that burns out the impurities of our spirit and fuels the flames of passion that push us, through our own weaknesses, into ecstatic union with the sublimity of existence.
Read the rest of this entry

“Till immersed in that mighty ocean”: Perils of Awakening in a Universe of Hungry Ghosts

Down, down, I sank, till immersed in that mighty ocean where conflicting elements were swallowed by a mountain wave of darkness, which grasped me within its mighty folds and I sank to the lowest depths of forgetfulness.

— Andrew Jackson Davis, quoted by James Webb in The Occult Underground

It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father. So in this place you see everything and do not see yourself, but in that place you do see yourself – and what you see you shall become.

— From The Gospel of Philip, Trans. Wesley W. Isenberg

A cold fire calling from beyond time or space, its light refracted in the prism of apparent materiality, who can stand the sight of themselves stripped of skin and bone, who can listen with ease to that haunting song sung without a mouth or breath? Who can kiss Diana’s lips and still stand in the material realm unchanged?

We live in a world between mirrors, beneath us the ground, above us the sky, and beyond each an infinite space filled with potential. Immersed in our own being, everywhere we look we see reflections of our nature.  Perhaps, as the Gospel of Philip states, we see the sun without becoming it, but its fiery nature awakens in us a recognition of our own being, and we are able to make some symbolic connection that goes beyond mere allusion. This tendency regulates our daily lives, allowing day-to-day experiences to anchor themselves in previous expectations. Mirrored wherever we look, our future emerges from the shadows of past evidence.  From this security we can drop a line into the depths of our senses, fishing out insights and answers. Sometimes, however, what we catch pulls us under, leaving us lost in the swirling currents of our self, and if our identity fractures on the hidden rocks reaching up from beneath the surface, we run the risk of drowning.
Read the rest of this entry

“Thou seest, O Son, with thine eyes”: Magic, Metaphysics, and the Actionable Expression of Misdirection

16. Thou seest, O Son, with thine eyes; but though thou look never so steadfastly upon me, with the Body, and bodily sight, thou canst not see, nor understand what I am now.

17. Tat. Thou hast driven me, O Father, into no small fury and distraction of mind, for I do not now see my self.

The Seventh Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: His Secret Sermon in the Mount Of Regeneration, and the Profession of Silence. To His Son Tat.

My friend Ferdinando Buscema was recently featured on Erik Davis’s and Maja D’Aoust’s Expanding Mind podcast (dedicated to exploring “the cultures of consciousness”) to discuss his specialty, Magic Experience Design.  It’s always a pleasure to be reminded of Ferdinando’s work, because it has been so integral to opening up my understanding of the true depth of the art of misdirection.  What I once assumed was merely a complex set of techniques that could be used to increase manual and mental dexterity has become a gateway to revelation.

The artful evocation of astonishment is one of the ways that Ferdinando defines his practice, but such a simple statement doesn’t reveal, and it might even be said that it misdirects from, the fact that underlying this is a master’s understanding of the subtle clues that go into building an atmosphere in which astonishment is possible. I’ll leave it to you to listen to the Expanding Minds conversation, in which Erik, Maja, and Ferdinando explore this topic in great detail.  What most surprised me about it personally wasn’t something in the podcast itself but something I found later while looking for more information on one of Ferdinando’s mentors in the magical arts, Max Maven.

Read the rest of this entry

Parapsychology and Intellectual Integrity: Words of Advice from Dr. Krippner

Forgive me; I just returned from this year’s Parapsychological Association conference, and my mind is still digesting five days of intense engagement with the scientific study of exceptional human experiences.  So this column will necessarily be very brief. Rather than regurgitate some half-chewed material, I’d like to share a few insights from Dr. Stanley Krippner, professor of psychology at Saybrook University, who was honored at the convention for his contributions to the field on the eve of his 80th birthday, which is coming up in October.

It’s difficult to write a brief summary of the career of a man whose work in various fields has provided a cornerstone for social progress in the 20th and early 21st centuries.  For close to a decade, starting in 1964, Krippner was the director of the Maimonides Medical Center Dream Research Laboratory in Brooklyn, which was started by Montague Ullman in 1962 to study ESP in dreams. Serious study in all of the areas currently in vogue within the consciousness studies field, from dream studies to shamanism to distance healing, were all in some way progressed by Krippner’s efforts over the years to bring scientific rigor to the study of exceptional experiences.

He also has the rare honor of being equally respected by both the most vehement skeptics and those working in the field of parapsychology. During his address to the convention, he joked that he was one of the rare public parapsychologists to have received not one but three letters of apology from James Randi. Such a feat makes his advice to young researchers, and to those hoping to come into such a contentious field of study, very pertinent.

We are currently seeing a resurgence of focus on parapsychology after a 20-year lull, with more and more university groups and institutes returning to an area of study that held the world’s fascination for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. From the research work currently being conducted at the Rhine Research Center, University of West Georgia, University of Virginia, Windbridge Institute, Institute of Noetic Sciences, and University of Northampton, to the educational opportunities offered by organizations such as Atlantic University and the Monroe Institute, it is once again possible for students and young researchers to look forward to a career in parapsychology. However, we haven’t crested the hill yet, and much work still needs to be done to carry things forward into the 21st century.

Read the rest of this entry

His Strange Confession: Self-help, natural philosophy, and what Napoleon Hill learned from the devil

The good man went into his chapel then to fetch a book and a stole which he put around his neck, and on his return he set about conjuring the Enemy. He had been reading the invocation for some while, when he looked up and saw the Enemy before him in such a hideous guise that the stoutest of hearts would have quailed at the sight of him.

“Thou dost plague me cruelly,” said the Enemy. “Here I am now. What is thy business?”

— from The Quest for the Holy Grail (13th Century – Anonymous)

Anomalous phenomena require grounding in an everyday plot. The transitional matrix of experience, from expected to unknown, from known to unexpected, acts as a conduit between material truth and imaginal construct. From UFOs set against the lull of rural life to small town stories of spirits and cryptids, anomaly outlines itself against a mundane background.

A potent confluence of the real and the imagined is found in some of the best examples of classic ghost stories from the more masterful littérateurs of speculative fiction. Storytellers such as Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, and Rudyard Kipling each mixed their personal experiences, and also stories they heard told as truth while traveling abroad or mingling in society, into select short fiction, thus creating works of fiction that, if they were retold as fact, would cause some to question the sanity of the teller.

Then there are authors Charles Leland, William Seabrook, and John Keel: poetic entrepreneurs playing journalist in the nightside of nature, in whose works the boundary lines are thrown out altogether. For these writers, the separation between autobiography and imaginal exposition is absorbed into a holistic vision of high strangeness that is often as weird and otherworldly as the best of Blackwood while being struck through with zigzag currents and unconventionally mundane angles that open up an entirely different atmosphere. These stories are told with a straight face, a wink, and a great deal of crafting, but all separation between fact and fiction is made ignoble by the refusal of the storyteller to do anything but recollect the story. Much of the skill in such a story lies in the author’s seemingly affectless manner of presenting what he heard and saw, with the author locating himself as a mere transitional device that leaves a core of the event untouched.

Leland, Seabrook, and Keel all began as journalists, pursuing crooked career paths in which their professional training was an enhancing element in their work rather than a prime focus. Their jobs in journalism brought them in contact with a wide variety of people on odd assignments, and their willingness to listen allowed them to assemble stories that would have otherwise slipped into the anima mundi uncollected. In all cases the market played an eager hand in shaping the nature of the story in its final form. Literate ghost stories are carefully crafted pastorals, genteel corruptions of the vulgar imagination, whereas poetic journalists hard at the hunt fall victim to the borderland’s subtle snares, reporting back with will o’ the wisp whispers and hints of possibility.

Read the rest of this entry

The Light of Natural Philosophy

Let us ask the Apostle Paul, that vessel of election, in what activity he saw the armies of the Cherubim engaged when he was rapt into the third heaven. He will answer, according to the interpretation of Dionysius, that he saw them first being purified, then illuminated, and finally made perfect.

We, therefore, imitating the life of the Cherubim here on earth, by refraining the impulses of our passions through moral science, by dissipating the darkness of reason by dialectic — thus washing away, so to speak, the filth of ignorance and vice — may likewise purify our souls, so that the passions may never run rampant, nor reason, lacking restraint, range beyond its natural limits.

Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.

– Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. A. Robert Caponigri

Published in 1486, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man has been seen as a “manifesto of the Renaissance,” a flower of the humanistic spirit. And yet today’s humanists would be put off by its language, which is filtered through mysticism and Biblical rhetoric and symbols.  Ironically, the Catholic authorities of its time similarly disliked it, but for opposite reasons, finding the piece to be not only heretical for its deviation from Catholic Christian orthodoxy but also “inflamatory,” with the potential to encourage and foster further heresies.

We find a similar discordance with our contemporary concept of the humanistic endeavor in the work of the psychologist William James. Presenting a counterpoint to the mechanistic theories of the 19th century, a large part of the work he did with the Society for Psychical Research was focused on exploring such issues as survival after bodily death and other phenomena that, in the past, had been rooted in a purely religious context. It was James’s study of the world’s religions that led him to create a humanistic alternative based on the possibility that proper scientific analysis of extraordinary experiences would lead to a profound picture of reality that went far beyond the things to which mechanistic theories were willing to grant credence.  Yet today’s humanism vilifies James’s investigation of such phenomena.

Read the rest of this entry

“That’s a Man Standing There Solid As Me” – Some Reflections on the Nature of Ghosts

For a moment leave aside whether you believe or disbelieve in the existence of ghosts. Would you know one if you saw it?

Once, I would have said yes. I would have had a picture in mind of a spectral figure — the familiar trope of popular media — or perhaps an orb, a shadowy shape, or some kind of purposeful, unseen force. However, there is a much deeper history to the ghost (a secret history, in fact, as Claude Lecouteux’s work points out), and one that ties it to our concepts of life, death, and our relationships with the social order and the natural world around us. And these days, although some of the details of my conceptions may remain the same, the simple associations I had given to ghostly phenomena have been erased from my mind by a brief conversation and some deep reading.

Read the rest of this entry

Phantom Histories: Thoughts on the Work of Medievalist Claude Lecouteux

In those days it was common to bury people at night and by torchlight: and it was noticed that whenever a funeral was toward, John Poole was always at his window, either on the ground floor or upstairs, according as he could get the better view from one or the other …

There came a night when an old woman was to be buried. She was fairly well to do, but she was not liked in the place. The usual thing was said of her, that she was no Christian, and that on such nights as Midsummer Eve and All Hallows, she was not to he found in her house.

— from “There Was a Man Dwelt by the Churchyard” by M.R. James

A wonderful collection of classic texts was discovered beneath the finely writ words of a Byzantine prayer book. Seven treatise by Archimedes, including the only known copies of his works The Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion, along with previously unknown speeches by the Athenian orator Hyperides and a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories from the second or third century AD, have been carefully reproduced by analyzing the traces left on the prayer book’s vellum pages. Some enterprising scribe had scraped them clean to reuse the sheets, overlaying prayers on top of a wealth of ancient knowledge.  

Mirroring the material focus of our time this discovery gives a very physical example of a process which is prevalent in all areas of culture. Hidden beneath folk tales, myths, familial anecdotes, and in between the lines of every song, book and treatise one can find the remnants of past revelations.

Read the rest of this entry