Altered states, and defenestrating Cartesian dualism

I had a pretty unhappy youth.
Was this really all there was to reality? When it wasn’t busy being traumatizing, it was agonizingly dull.
For more insight into what this was like, I recommend giving a listen to this recording of Peggy Lee’s ‘is that all there is?’.
As a cynical young teen I began to feel the white, suburban world I lived in was culturally and spiritually bankrupt, with most people around me only paying half-hearted lipservice to Christianity. I was deeply unhappy, culturally disconnected and spiritually unfulfilled. I was also a bit of a teen-goth cliche.
This disenchantment was likely one of the things that pushed me towards a pagan path-particularly one that heavily uses shamanic techniques.

Being able to escape into stories, games, meditation, dancing or anything else resembling altered states wasn’t just a tool for survival, but something that has made my world much richer. I’ve never been a fan of recreational drug use as my perception of reality is weird enough already and I don’t want to endanger my tenuous mental stability.

As I matured I began to notice and appreciate parallels in the culture I was immersed in to those supposedly more magically inclined ones from the distant and romanticized past I’d only read about in books. AFL football could be conceptualized as ritualized battle between clans; contemporary dance a form of shapeshifter magic; BDSM play spaces a way of inducing altered states of consciousness. People I’ve encountered participating in the rave scene would often talk about transcendent experiences beyond what could be explained by recreational drug use. Many of us know a born storyteller, someone able to spin engrossing tales whenever they feel the inclination. Art of all forms often utilizes the power of bringing about altered states. Much of the art and media I have consumed, created or participated in has been powerfully transformative. I’ve read many books that have changed me forever.

A few years ago I attended an avant-garde theater performance with a group of friends. The audience awaited direction outside in the cool night air, at the corner of an inner city alley. At the appointed time, a Charon-like figure appeared to usher us to the nearby ‘secret’ location of the performance; a dimly lit and intimate bar.
The outcome of the story depended on the reaction and participation of the audience. The performers wandered about and mingled with the people in attendance. The lighting, mystery and anticipation quickly created a liminal space. There was magic afoot.
One of the performers, who had taken on the role of Lilith was particularly compelling; but there was something deeper at play here than dedicated and immersive acting. It was her. We all felt it.
Myself and my friends were all deeply emotionally/spiritually impacted by what transpired. It was on my mind for several weeks afterwards.

More recently, Friday night was a particularly special night for the LARP group I semi-regularly attend. The warband the Briarwolf Pact was disbanding, and this was honored with some role-play and ceremony.
Within the fantasy universe Swordcraft takes place in, the Briarwolves are ancestor revering, wild warriors whose tenets include the importance of balance, and of family. During the battle, we were lead by the ancestors themselves-members of the warband dressed with garlands of blue glowing lights as a representation of their otherworldly nature.
Somebody on the field on the opposing side was playing the bagpipes and people were beating their shields to the rhythm of war. I have just enough Scottish ancestry in my blood to love the sound of bagpipes. It was a thrilling experience and emotions ran high. I dare say, it was magical.

As an animist, my view of the world is one that makes no material distinction between the ‘mundane’ and the ‘spiritual’; it rejects Cartesian dualism. Daily life however, is a grind. Ennui and suffering make losing the childlike wonder at the beauty of the universe all too easy. Making time for structured magical ritual isn’t always possible.

But sometimes magic seeps through into any spaces which invoke liminality and cannot be ignored, no matter how secular; those of artistic or emotional expression especially.

If you look for it, you might find it in some unexpected places too.


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