A Deserter from the Navy


A deserter from the navy. Image courtesy Lyn Birkbeck.

The Sabian symbol for today, 22 January 2014, in which the sun is in the 4th degree of Aquarius is ‘A Deserter from the Navy.’ These symbols–one for each of the 360 degrees of the solar journey around the zodiacal theatre–are eidetic glyphs, downloaded by turn of the century psychic Elsie Wheeler. Today they are an important component of astrological analysis. It so happens that I have Jupiter, planet of faith, expansiveness, philosophy in the 4th degree of Aquarius [note: in Astrological charts, in which the 1st degree is 0-1 degress, the 4th degree of Aquarius, 3-4 degrees, is written as Aquarius 3].

Master Astrologer Lyn Birkbeck interprets this particular solar glyph like so:

Breaking Away From The Norm

Circumstances urge an outright rebellion against the status quo – especially with respect to what is generally regarded as morally unacceptable. No matter what others think, one is driven to take the consequences as the price one pays for being true to oneself.

I often find myself ‘behind enemy lines’. Perhaps, since the solstice 2012, hard on the heels of that grand establishment coda the London Olympics and the unconcealed Millennium Domish simulated Lizardry behind it, we are all behind enemy lines. We, the people, seem powerless to prevent the insane eco-piracy of fracking. The police lie. The people jerking the strings of  the multi trillion dollar confidence trick that markets itself as the economy interlinking the 8 billion people on the planet could fit on a single double decker bus. In the last 100 years–or is it 1 year, what does it matter the curve is exponential–humanity will have consumed more earthly resource than was consumed in the entire history of humanity.

3.2 billion year old rainbow serpent synapse

3.2 billion year old rainbow serpent synapse

The parade of octogenarian former television and radio personalities on charges of sexually molesting women and children continues through British courts. A 99p shop in Wales erupts into chaos when it’s half price sale ends mid-trading. An African man shows up at the scene of a mob murder to slice the arm off one of the corpses and eat it in front of the ogling crowd. And in a small room in the City of London I hold for a few moments in my hand a 3.2 billion year old octahedral crystal synapse of Pachamama, the Earth Goddess herself.

Of course, no one else there saw the golf ball-sized crystal as such. Rather, the point of this little exercise was a taste of the process by which such crystals are graded according to their shape, size and clarity–first steps in the industrial process that turns them into cut and polished diamonds.

Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent rock painting, Australia

Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent rock painting, Australia

According to various strands of Aboriginal, Amazonian and African indigenous mythology–the correspondences are documented by, for instance, Jeremy Narby in his popular book The Cosmic Serpent–the centre of the Earth is an octahedral crystal. Paintings from these distant regions depict the spirit of the Earth as a serpent chasing, or being led by an octahedral shape.

To hold something 3.2 billion years old, extracted from the Earth by a process which averages 250 tons of rock per carat [the industry measure of weight] of diamond, in your hand in a rather random room in the City of London inspires strange thoughts and feelings. This particular octahedral synapse of the cosmic serpent, valued at 296 carats, required 74,000 tons of the Earth’s crust be moved elsewhere. It’s sheer size and octahedrality has so far saved it from the process that would render it fit for consumption. The first stage of that process is to saw the octahedral crystal synapse in half.

A younger, less mortal me would have had a go. And–as the actual younger less mortal me was on more than one occasion–been fired and turned away to face my shitty little end of the global trillion dollar confidence trick that masquerades as a ‘free’ market economy afresh. A fantasy, utterly immortal me might have swallowed the damned rock and made a bolt for it. And probably gotten no further than the elevator.

The older, more mortal me, swallowed the sadness that oozed into my hands from that piece of Pachamama Earth Serpent’s brain and my judgement of those at that very moment being brainwashed into seeing it as ungraded precursor to several multimillion pound pieces of jewellery.

Despite not letting the mask slip, I was still clocked. I know I was. I could see the presenter’s conscience rise to the surface of her face, where it was quickly masked by the sort of scrunching that passes in such contexts as a smile. And as I write this now I see that I didn’t fail. I didn’t have to martyr myself through awkward questions or standing up to deliver some empassioned plea on behalf of the Earth Goddess. That would have triggered the laser beams and the steel shutters would have come thumping down.

None of that was necessary. Something in me connected with something in her. Oh Pachamama is clever! Let them have the stones from the ground and cut them with lasers and store them in bank vaults to be brought out at thick, red-carpeted junctures of the Matrix and flashed at the flashing cameras. The light of awareness is faster than flashes for it is outside of time it is the simultaneous recognition of the divine in the divine. In the end there will be no escaping it.

It would be wrong of me not to leave you with a sample of the book currently touching my divinity – The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic: The Parallel Lives of People as Plants, by Martín Prechtel. Page 212:

Modernity’s seemingly bottomless addiction to an endless pursuit of recreation, substances, TV, or religious or scientific promises of another more anesthetized world, of having to constantly “escape” or “get away” from an everyday life of dead, demythologized stuff, and a daily insignificance in a schemeless, unstirred whole is fast creating an anti-existence based on forgetting instead of remembering, which, if it doesn’t first kill the viability of the holy ground we need to live on…we will someday not have enough reality left here on earth in our bodies to remember, much less anything to remember it with; the muscle and its reason for existing would atrophy simultaneously.

© Nizami Thirteen 2014


Sabian Symbol interpretations, The Astrological Oracle by Lyn Birkbeck.

The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic, by Martín Prechtel, recommended to me by the World’s Most Unlikely Shaman, Davina Mackail.









Review: Gateways of the Mind

The Green Earth, Victor Pasmore, courtesy WikiPaintings

Last weekend (9-10 November 2013) I was lucky enough to attend Gateways of the Mind, Europe’s largest lucid dreaming and consciousness convention, organised by Archetype Events, aka husband and wife team Davyd and Emma Farrell. This was the second Gateways event, and the organisers excelled themselves in pulling together a panel of big hitters from the world of lucid dreaming and out of body experiences. Corridors were lined with visionary art – Edward Foster being a particular highlight – books from Tibetan lama Tenzin Wangpal Rinpoche, UK lama Charlie Morley, standup philosopher Tim Freke and others, sacred Amazonian tree essences from Mimi Buttacavoli and many others.

Of the speakers, all of whom were passionate, fluent and engaging, my attention was first grabbed by Michael Winn, Taoist alchemist and former colleague of Mantak Chia. Michael constructed a piece of theatre, placing members of the audience in various seated positions in order to demonstrate the spheres of the self, from conscious to subconscious to soul to collective soul and ultimately to the Tao herself, a fun and very graphic way to communicate this esoteric concept of the self. He also talked about the microcosmic body’s holographic relationship to the macrocosmic universe via the five elements and their ‘housing’ (or quantum entanglement, if you prefer) in the body via the spirits of the five major organs. Approaching these spirits as intelligent, aware beings with their own strengths, weaknesses, feelings and even will is a deep fundamental of Taoist Alchemy. It is the same in the shamanic healing mode I practise over at Spirit13ody. More on that soon…

The ancient but ever youthful and thoroughly pleasant Stanley Krippner gave a delightfully old fashioned US academic style global tour of shamanic dreaming. Here’s a man from the same vein as Richard Evans Schultes and Dennis McKenna, Columbian shaman’s shirt under stained double breasted blazer.

The youthful but perhaps somehow ancient Charlie Morley manages to combine great knowledge with the bouncy style of a children’s television presenter. Indeed it would be a marvelous thing if he did have a television show, talking to children about the flying dreams they’re having and reminding them to remember these early holy grail experiences. Like Parsifal, we spend our lifetimes trying to find them again.

The organisers chose well in putting Tim Freke on last. After William Buhlman’s more urgent talk, Tim’s comic relief worked like magic. In a masterful performance combining his love for his dying mother and barefoot slapstick antics, he brought us to that deeply humanist realisation Jack Kornfield wrote about in The Path with Heart: the twin destinations of the spiritual path, spirit and self. We are, said Tim, that ineffable dreamer that dreams us, AND this dreamed self, with its fears and failings. The idea of annihilating the ego, he said, was a bunch of distorted Indian crap. You can’t annihilate it. Rather, it’s a dance, and you improve it. Having met more than a few spiritual types who thought progress was about minimising their personhood – with all the shadows that creates – it was refreshing to hear Kornfield’s message spelled out in the most delightfully animated and inspiring way. Tim brought the convention to a close with a wonderfully simple exercise that brought to life that deep concept that we are all one, elements of a dream being dreamed by the same dreamer, just as in our own dreams, the myriad characters are all us. As one, we rose for a standing ovation.

Earlier, Celtic shaman Martin Duffy spoke at length about awakening to his own ‘indigenous’ knowledge, catalysed by visits to the Amazon and so on. His first hand accounts of encounters with the Sidhe were riveting. The Shining Ones, he said, were watching the human race very closely, some among them being terminally pissed off with our disregard for nature, others remaining sympathetic, so to speak. This is of course a big theme – the big theme no less. What is the right relationship of mankind to the Earth. Is it ours to do with as we will? Is it the other way around? Who are the Sidhe? The way Martin spoke of them reminded me of the way Judy Satori and others speak of Intergalactic Councils…with factions for and not so for humanity being given time, more time, to work things out in its own way.

According to Juliet Carver’s Bali-published Worldbridger, echoing 1996’s collection of channelings The Only Planet of Choice, Earth is unique in the entire Universe, if not Multiverse, in that it is the only planet of free will. It is thus an adventure playground, a test, an experiment, a game, a riddle. What will we do down here, given we are free to do what we want, free here and only here from the shackles of Divine Will?

In Bible terms we’re talking about The Fall from Grace, the step of The Fool over the edge of Innocence and into the gravitational well of karma in which the Earth and its ever growing coat of attached souls flounders. Yet Fall we must. Only Planet of Choice, channeling one ‘Tom’ of the ‘Council of Nine’ has a crack at this most ineffable Why? Ultimately, says Tom, because God god bored. God split from Oneness into Duality in order to have something to push against. To see what would happen. To make life more interesting. Hence Satan, hence antagonism, hence the hero’s journey. Comparative studies via ironic reversal (see the initiatix series in this blog) reveal deep ironies/paradoxes/truths here. For instance that – and here the wheels of language are truly spinning in the air – God is She and Siva/Satan is He, created in order that He might (almost) destroy God – just as women are turned on by the deathliness of men, so they say. What a thrill. As discussed in Hysteria of Machismo and earlier posts in the initiatix series, the ultimate thrill for the immortal must be guess what – death!

Which brings us to my ulterior motive for writing this review: William Buhlman. In a two hour session he set out the by-now-standard stall for Out of Body Experiences. I am unclear what the distinction between lucid dreams and OBEs is. I suspect the two are industry- distinguished rather than ontologically distinct. Anyway. OBEs present a conscious holodeck in which to conquer fears, access higher levels of self and ultimately train for that most profound and total OBE: death. I subscribe 100% to all of that.

Which is why I was shocked to hear Buhlman, on a roll about the immortality of the soul and the infinitude of the multiverse, say that he didn’t care ‘if the planet died.’ He was emphatic about it. He was also emphatic about the role of war in teaching souls courage. I’ve heard Buhlman speak twice now, the first time more than ten years ago, when he was promoting his first book, Adventures Beyond the Body. Both times he referred to his previous incarnation as a Nazi tank commander. At the weekend he added that both his sons have completed tours of Iraq. Buhlman, if you didn’t know, is a part time commander of OBEs at the Monroe Institute in Virginia, a mere 100 miles from the Pentagon.

Those familiar with my writing will know where I’m going. While Buhlman’s experience of the multiverse is for sure much greater than mine, to hold that the Earth is entirely expendable, given the infinitude of universes, dimensions, other worlds out there, smacks of Lizardry. In other words, those unreconstructed beings of Inner Space who, having destroyed their own planet, invaded ours. In other words, those unreconstructed beings who, having destroyed America, invaded Iraq. If this is the level of consciousness that Buhlman’s mantra Higher self now! has elevated him to, then perhaps something has gone awry in his dance of selves.

I didn’t get the chance to put the matter to Buhlman. Perhaps I misunderstood him. He seems a nice enough bloke, if a little buhlish. Without prejudice then, to present oneself as a guide to greater consciousness, and hold that the Earth, Gaia, Pachamama, is expendable, is highly dangerous.

There is of course further inquiry to be made here, through further gateways of the mind– or rather revolving doors of irony – but that’s another article. Meantime let’s give old Pachamama the benefit of the doubt and show her some love.





Barong – an archaic revival

Enter Barong

Enter Barong

One thing always leads to another, just in Bali the process is more intense. The Matrix excels at giving us what we ask for. In my case it was the Barong dance – the gamelan, flute, drums and the extraordinarily weird creature itself. It was a tourist performance – a display, but nonetheless an authentic immersion in Balinese magic. In four visits to Ubud now, I have seen all the different troupes perform. Playing djembe alone in the forest, I saw Barong peering from the foliage. I felt connected.

Barong is a shamanic animal, the King of the Forest. Its shaggy coat and protruding fangs signify membership of the Lower World, while its ornate headdress and adornments are the cosm-etic of the Upper World. Barong is both profane and divine. Like the Nagas (dragons) it is a self-existing form of power – an anima-l from the archaic, revived every week in Bali in the medieval tale of Calon Arang.

The widow Calon Arang was an embittered old crone swathed in rumours of black magic and devotion to that dark feminine archetype Durga. No man dared marry her beautiful daughter, Ratna. An outcast, Calon Arang’s anger brimmed over and she went about inflicting sorceric revenge on the Kingdom. In one of the early scenes of the dance, King Erlangga and his advisers survey the diseased state of the nation and decide that something must be done. The High Priest devises a plan. His son will marry Ratna and at the first opportunity steal her mother’s book of sorcery. This he does, and a showdown between High Priest and Calon Arang ensues.

Fully venting her rage, she transforms into Rangda, a demon with decidedly Lower World claws, fangs and lolling tongue. Rangda’s face is not so different to Barong’s, but she lacks the adornments of divinity. The High Priest sends his men to attack Rangda. One by one they launch themselves at the apparition, summoning ferocious rage as they plunge their kriss into Rangda’s breast. Each time Rangda returns undaunted, swatting them with her magic cloth. One by one the men crumble, turn their kriss on themselves, trying to pierce their own chests. The gamelan pounds a metal fanfare as Barong enters, joining Rangda in a swirling anima-l dance of the Lower World while the men writhe on the floor in agonised trance, straining against their kriss. A real priest revives the men with tirtha (holy water).

The dance holds ancient keys to the human condition. The movements of the King and his advisers are a caricature of patriarchal swagger. Their costumes are built up around their heads so that these men are neckless, moustachioed, half-demonic faces barking orders. There is something primal in their gestures. The face suddenly tilting, a pause before high-stepping across the stage like a demon.

The two men beneath the 80kg Barong costume must conjure the illusion of a four-legged animal. The mask must come to life. It must sample the air, gazing inwards. It must snap round, gnashing at some quick, invisible energy. It must dance – fur, bells and beard made of the hair of premenstrual girls flying. In these transitions from entranced stillness to wilful movement, we recognise the anima-l mind. In Barong’s unblinking eyes we recognise infinite desire to perceive, to experience, to live. We are mesmerised, put in touch with our organic (Lower World) and inorganic (Upper World) essence. Like us, Barong is a weave between Upper and Lower, Spirit and Mat(t)er, Garuda and Naga. Essentially the same, and yet so different. Barong is familiar and alien at the same time. The archaic in us remembers.



On another level we can compare Calon Arang, the wounded widow, with the Biblical figure of Lilith, neglected while Adam and Eve got together, and by extension, Durga. In some versions of the story Calon Arang is betrayed by her own daughter. Modern commentators observe the patriarchal propaganda about certain aspects of the feminine. The Calon Arang drama is designed to conjure fear and loathing for feminine wrath. Drawn from the male dancers, these energies are only rebalanced by the presence of divine-profane Barong, who has been summoned by the priest. Like Toety Herati, I found myself wondering about gender politics.

Having downloaded Barong music from iTunes, I tried unsuccessfully to imitate the suling (Balinese bamboo flute) on my Peruvian quena (bamboo flute). On my fourth visit to Ubud I found a flute maker and teacher. In one hour with Wayan I had learned the basic fingering; in five, the circular breathing needed to carry the sinuous tunes. Gamelan is an orchestral form with standards and scales and set ways of decorating the melody. There is a yogic mapping between the music and the human body. I realised how accustomed I am to playing ad lib.

The following week Wayan invited me to a Barong performance at a temple above Ubud. I arrived at his house in the evening, and chatted with his wife until he arrived. She told me they only had one child, which is unusual and deemed somewhat unfortunate in Bali. Perhaps, she joked, it was because Wayan was of lower caste than her. Men are allowed to marry upstream. Women are not.

Running late, Wayan and I flew by scooter to the temple, stacked above a bend in the road and already overflowing with people, all Balinese. I follow Wayan through the crowd, trying not to stand on people, and sit in the space he indicates next to him. At once he produces his flute. The orchestra starts up.

I realise where I’m sitting. Cross legged behind a group of children, I’m wedged between Kendang (double headed drum) and Ceng-Ceng (cymbals). The flute player next to me rests his leg on mine. The massage I had earlier only seems to have inflamed my glutes, and my knees are already protesting. Moving an inch to my right I will obstruct the drummer. The rapid hands of the cymbal player brush my backside. The sound is deafening. I cannot believe my luck.

The small rectangular stage is surrounded on all sides by stonework and Balinese – mostly men, wearing uniform white udang (turban) and shirt with dark sarong. Groups of women sit together, wearing matching outfits – bright blue or fuchsia crochet tops, broad sashes and floral sarongs. I meet many eyes, but only briefly. No one chances a smile. Perhaps they reflect my own self consciousness. Perhaps there are cultural factors. The relentless influx of the bulay (foreigner). I am the only one here, but I have infiltrated into the heart of the orchestra.

I watch people discretely trying to work out where I’m from. Half Indian-Malaysian, half Scottish, I can be hard to place. It varies according to context. In London people think I’m Moroccan or Brazilian. A man selling cassettes in Ourzazate, Morocco clocked my earlobes as Indian. Perhaps in Bali I am Javanese. Perhaps an itinerant from Rishikesh, whose eye might be dangerous to meet.

After roots, the second question in Bali is marital status. I watch conjectures forming about my being here alone. And perhaps about the white and silver embroidered sarong I bought in the almost empty Pasar Seni Dua (Central Market 2) and two-tone goatskin money belt I chose rather than a standard black nylon one. It’s easy to break the temple dress code. For women of course there is a vast range of patterns and colours. Men are preoccupied with certain knots and folds and subdued colours designed to compensate for the basically feminine business of wearing a sarong. Perhaps there are questions of sexuality. Perhaps the lack of acknowledgement is because the novelty of bulay in Balinese gear has long ago worn off. The smaller children stare back like yogis, dark eyes shining. They do not smile. They are simply present to the fact I am there among them – tolerated, if not exactly welcome. A fat boy plays with a mobile phone. Somehow this is comforting.

A curtain is drawn back and the first of three Barongs enters. A Barong Ket (lion Barong) with beige fur. I am close enough to touch it. A competent performance, yet the two men beneath the costume don’t quite manage to conjure the spirit of Barong – to sustain the illusion of a four legged power anima-l. The children act as if they own the place, ducking beneath the swirling skirts of Barong to call out to friends and parents. The fat boy plays a laser pointer off Barong’s mirrored coat. Another kid punches his arm.

The second is a Barong Celeng (boar barong) with black velvet flanks and the kind of face that is painted on the tips of missiles. Dog-stretching, jangling, trotting, it is pungently animal. But the show stealer is another Barong Ket. The orchestra cranks up to a furious tempo as it goes into a four legged frenzy, frangipani flying from its girls’ hair mane. This is the ecstatic dance of a power animal. Everyone is spellbound by the time it departs, somehow managing to exit the stage via the narrow gap in the corner. People scramble out of its way. Pecalang (security) men leap to help the huge contraption through.

A pause, a coda on the kendang, and the orchestra explodes into frantic arpeggios as Rangda enters, tongue dripping from jagged maw, obscenely long nails outstretched. Nine young men wielding kriss rush on and surround Rangda. One look at their faces and it’s clear they’re not acting. Their absorption is total. Their fear and loathing of Rangda is real. One by one they rush at Rangda and stab her repeatedly in the chest. The costume is more than thick enough to protect the man wearing it, but the force with which the youths hurl themselves at Rangda has four muscular Pecalang men struggling to keep the melee from staggering back into the crowd. Maybe the actor has a bruised chest in the morning but each time Rangda returns undaunted, unharmed.

She retreats behind a steel ladder – behind the veil – held in place by Pecalang men. The youths haul and shove at it as though their lives depend on it. The space keels one way and the other. People scramble everywhere, getting out the way of the tranced men. They throw themselves on their kriss, rolling on the floor in agony. Anything could happen, the whole thing sliding out of control. I realise the gamelan has stopped.

Like emergency medics the priests rush in. A pug-faced mangku (priest) and several women set down a cloth laden with coconuts and canang (offerings) and start flicking tirtha (holy water) everywhere. Several youths have to be physically restrained, the kriss wrenched from their hands. One right in front of me is totally out of it. It takes four men to hold him down. Barong is summoned and stands over him, jaws snapping at whatever evil clouds him. Faces are slapped, mantras are chanted. Normality returns.

The Lanzon totem at the Temple of Chavin, Chavin de Huantar, Peru

The Lanzon totem at the Temple of Chavin, Chavin de Huantar, Peru

Sat inches away, I feel separate. By my foreignness of course, and by my love of Barong and Rangda. I cannot access the fear and loathing. I see Rangda much as I see Barong. Their protruding fangs remind me of the Lanzon, prehistoric totem of Chavin de Huantar in Peru. Both resemble Bhoma, the demonic face grinning through carved foliage above doorways in Bali. I see a silvan ensemble. Here is Pan, the Green Man, Pachamama. Here are satyrs, nymphs, centaurs, therianthropes. Celebrations of the weave of spirit and matter. Light and dark are simply different colour threads.

Perhaps the archaic revival is a revision of the old devil-gods. Do I under-stand them from an evolved perspective, or does their darkness repel me? I cannot relate to this male rage at the female demon. Perhaps it is buried within me. Perhaps there is a rite or sacrament that opens the tomb. A stone portal, carved with leaves and demons. I imagine pausing there, in highly evolved sarong and man-bag, wondering if I am going forwards or back. If all is a dance of light and dark, does transcendence earn you a place in the audience. Is that where I want to be? Or do I want to be part of the action?

I am roused by loud protest from my knees. I tell Wayan I am going to stretch my legs. The basket I brought filled with incense and canang has disappeared. I squeeze out of the temple, start up the scooter. A local lad speaks to me at the roadside. Hati hati, he says. Be careful.

© 2013 Nizami Thirteen


250px-Signorelli-Antichrist_and_the_devilCatching myself recently launching half-baked Facebook threads  with provocative mentions of “the Antichrist.” I’d better expand.

In traditional Christian belief, Jesus the Messiah appears in his Second Coming to earth, to face the emergence of the Antichrist figure.

Christianity decries the Antichrist as a false prophet – the Devil’s advocate  depicted in Revelations 13 and the famous painting by Signorelli. I am not concerned here with identifying this man as Dick Cheney, the Pope, or Binyamin Netanyahu, but with something more in line with Gnostic ideas:

The only one of the late 1st/early 2nd Century Apostolic Fathers to use the term is Polycarp (ca. 69 – ca. 155) who warned the Philippians that everyone who preached false doctrine was an antichrist.[13] His use of the term Antichrist follows that of the New Testament in not identifying a single personal Antichrist, but a class of people.

But let’s rewind. In the beginning was the Word, and the word was Om. Which is not a word in the same way ‘antichrist’ is a word, but the transcription of a sound – according to the vedas, the master sound that contains all others just as white light contains all the colours of the rainbow (and beyond). Om – whose correct pronunciation moves from a to o – is the alpha and omega of Mantra.

Whereas ordinary language bundles phonemes into words and sentences, the sounds of Mantra are manifestations of ultimate reality, which is beyond (and behind) ordinary human cognition – and therefore the perennial project of human endeavour. To see it, touch it, understand it. The Tower of Babel is perhaps the most famous fable of the outcome of that endeavour. The Tower touches the heavens and God strikes it down, its builders stricken with the bewildering affliction of tongues (plural). We fall from the unified language of Mantra, the stuff of which the world is made, into the babble of ordinary tongue.

shmnc-cch-box150Mantra, like the ayahauasqero’s icaros (not to be confused with Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, though we may well admit that myth here), have creative power. They are utterable vibrations that connect directly with the stuff of the universe. Shipibo textile patterns – to name one form I am familiar with, there are many others – are maps of such vibrations. If you prefer, we can say visualisations of the sounds, but this allows the idea that the patterns are creative interpretations of the sounds, which they are not. There is a science connecting sound and pattern. Different people produce the same sounds from a particular pattern.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that the universe is made of sound. Sound is energy, which we know from Einstein to bear a linear relationship with mass, that fundamental property of the material world. Matter is thick energy, if you like. Certain sounds are harmonious, others are unsettling or enervating. Certain notes played together on a piano sound strong (yang) or mysterious (yin). Others sound dischordant. If you are struggling with the idea of the universe being made of sound, ask yourself – Why do nice chords sound nice?

Perhaps you will say that ‘nice’ is psychological, a property of the mind, which is at the end of the day explainable with recourse to neurons and neurotransmitters, the transmission of electrons along myelin molecules and so on and so forth. In that case you would also say that consciousness, though science is not yet able to do it, is also explainable as atoms and electrons – and if need arises as quarks and charms and so on.

It seems strange in this postmodern, quantum – or even post-quantum – day to find reductionism so deeply entrenched. Anything that cannot be reduced to the theories of particle physics – God, for instance –  is often met with scoffing, sarcasm, cries to wake up. Anything that cannot be reduced to particle physics is seen as delusion. Consciousness is a sort of moot point, as it is taken on faith that one day it too will be seen to be a matter of atoms and electrons. This scientific faith is seen as better than spiritual faith, because science proceeds by hypothesis and repeatable experiment.

To be sure, spirituality has taken a bashing thanks in equal measure to the rantings of generally poor, uneducated and deceived people and the rich, educated and carefully selective eye of the television camera. It is easy to go from the irrationality of burning copies of the Quran or effigies of Barack Obama to the irrationality of “everything those people stand for.” Watching scenes of chaos following publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, or the refusal of protestants in Northern Ireland to lower the Union Jack for a day, we feel compelled to knock some sense into people.

350px-Confusion_of_TonguesBut lets rewind. In the Beginning was the Word, then there was the Fall – from Eden, of the Tower of the Babel. These two are very closely related, if not one and the same. Note, by the way, the paradox already encoded in ‘In the Beginning was Om’ – in the Alpha was Omega. The Fall happened because of Identification. Adam and Eve suddenly knew who they were. Adam knew the Names of Things. The Fall from Mantra into language takes place because of Identification.

Sounds produced are no longer of the same sonic substance as the universe itself but lie at a remove. The sounds now represent or encode. They require interpretation, which, if the sounds are to constitute communication requires the kind of convention Wittgenstein called a Language Game. I can crack a joke with you. You can tell me the world is made of quarks and charms. Well. You can try, but whether or not I buy it is a matter of language games. Do I play the same ones as you?

I don’t play the Consciousness Explained game. Because consciousness cannot be explained. (What does it actually mean to explain something anyway? But that’s another article.) The big difference between esoteric thinking and reductionist-materialist thinking is this:

  • Esoteric: consciousness is itself a fundamental property, like gravity or electromagnetic forces
  • Materialist: consciousness reduces to atoms and electrons.

Just as white light contains all the colours of the rainbow, so Om contains all the sounds of the universe. So far that is a description – a language game I am inviting you to play. So far you’ll either buy it or you won’t. Hopefully, when I add that those sounds of the universe are themselves aware – yes, conscious! – the game suddenly sounds more interesting.

You see – or should that be hear – this sonic stuff of the universe I’ve been talking about transcends the dualism of consciousness (in here) and matter (out there). It’s both a huge idea, and at the same time something as familiar as music. Subjective energies – moods, emotions, feelings – correspond to such objective wave-making as the plucking of a string or the beating of a drum.

The world is not as out there as we think.
[Carlos Castaneda]

In other words, the Subjective should not be relegated to mere epiphenomena – the pretty and pretty pointless patterns created by the firing of neurons – but should be carefully considered as our prima facie reality. Of course, as everyone knows, appearances can be deceptive. Learning happens when we discover we have been deceived, and – ideally – how we have been deceived. We move on with an improved idea about the world.

The problem for those who identify with the Consciousness Explained game of quarks and charms and so on, is that quarks and charms bear no relation whatsoever to ordinary human existence. They quite literally do not enter the frame. Indeed, highly specialised apparatus and conditions are necessary in order to observe events interpreted as phenomena of these invisible elements. Atoms and electrons are useful constructs for materials scientists. The rest of us need only observe that matter is made up – to the vast proportion – of empty space.

But the deniers of astrology and numerology and spirit and god and all the rest are seldom so rational. Even Richard Dawkins, the arch-materialist, fails to make the simple conceptual shift that awareness/consciousness is not phenomenon but noumenon. There is an old fashioned English word ‘nouse’ meaning ‘wits’. The matter is emotive because there is identification. To be precise: identification with the reductiveness of consciousness. Which is identification with the lying-at-a-remove of the Fallen. Identification with the husks of Babel.

Identifying oneself with something reducible to atoms and electrons is thus to play a game in which either everything – including consciousness and God – is similarly reducible or does not exist. Recruitment into this game is the function of the Antichrist – the Devil’s Advocate who arrives to explain Creation away as atoms and electrons. According to Biblical prophecy, the Reign of the Antichrist – interpreted successively in recent times as communism, capitalism, the New World Order – is a necessary precursor to the End of the World and the Second Coming.

In other words, perhaps the deathwish of identification with the material is necessary for human beings to realise the existence of spirit.

That said, what am I doing trying to rumble the mission of the Antichrist?


Cleanliness and godliness


Devotees making the final approach to the temple, following initiation

Saturday 26 January 2013. The streets and park beneath Sri Balathandayuthapani hilltop temple in Georgetown, Penang, throb with activity, drums and amplified mantras. I and nine other volunteers, brought together under eco-activist banner Sampah Masyarakat, brainchild of Shyam Priyah, unfold from a hired van after the four hour drive up from Kuala Lumpur. Our first concern is the parked car we accidentally scratched manoeuvring around the dark car park. The second is that the overnight tent we were promised is nowhere to be seen. And the third is how close our camping spot is to the already overflowing portable toilet block. I wonder if I have made a mistake coming here. Perhaps the others are also wondering. Shyam is asking if anyone has any Panadol. She’s running a slight fever.


My mood worsens in the face of further little setbacks. We have one torch between us. The poles of the dome tent are broken. We give up on Shyam’s beach tent: someone can use it as a ground sheet. We decide the smaller members of the group should sleep in the van, the longer ones will have to take their chances in the park. It’s half two in the morning and we have to be up at six. We have volunteered to help clean up the trash generated by the festival.

For a few hours, I drift in and out of the music belting from the temple, which blends with the boom and clatter of drums and chants as group after group of devotees arrive at the foot of the 513 steps that climb to where they lay their kavadi offerings to the deity Murugan, spear-carrying vanquisher of Asuras, after hours of walking. I am too exhausted to crawl out the tent and watch, content to imagine timeless scenes. An explosion of India in Penang.

Dawn comes slowly. The groups dwindle, and with them the drums, but the temple music carries on, interrupted only by loudspeaker announcements. Practical information, probably, but in formal Tamil everything sounds like a mythic transmission.

Thaipusam is the annual Hindu festival commemorating the penance of Murugan, the vel (spear) carrying deity created by Siva from his own Shakti power in order to battle the Asuras. As with many Vedic accounts, tracing the story of Murugan/Karthika/Skanda/ Subrahmanya is somewhat complex. Brother of Ganesa, in India he is also known as Thamizh Kadavul, the God of the Tamils.

There is nothing much for breakfast. One of the volunteers – an Iraqi engineering student – has bought sugary muffins. In fact, we’re too tired to eat. A cup of tea would have been nice though. We raise our banner between two trees. It takes some figuring out how to tie the four eyeholes securely with only one piece of rope.

Thanks to another team operating a food waste reprocessing scheme, we are invited into what seems to be the police hut, right in the middle of the action. The banner is repositioned. Now it’s on the fence, beside the official Welcome to Penang Thaipusam sign, unmissable by anyone on their way to the temple. People are looking, wondering who we are. A Tamil man joins us spontaneously. Shyam’s sister and her husband arrive. The latter is in deep conversation with a man who later turns out to be a member of Special Branch. Questions were asked as to whether we were a political outfit. No, we’re just here to pick up the trash.

After a briefing from Shyam – separate paper and plastic from food waste; raise awareness; represent – we head out into the morning sun. The crowd is thickening by the minute. The gutters along the festival streets are choked with plastic bottles, styrofoam food containers, plastic bags and paper cups originating from a Nestle stall vowing to provide 1 Million cups for Thaipusam. Shyam wades into the queue with a biodegradable bin bag.

Reactions from the crowd to volunteers clearing up rubbish were interesting. Mostly people got the simple message. If you throw your rubbish on the ground, someone else has to pick it up. There were also dirty looks. Religion and politics coinciding to conjure an element of threat. Who are these outsiders at the festival of the God of the Tamils? Two members of our group carried placards: “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Would you throw rubbish on the floor at home? Then why on the street?” Perhaps there were those in the crowd who felt morally high-grounded.

The “cleanliness…” message was certainly apt in the vacant lot near the beginning of the festival parade. Here families gathered, chanting vel, vel while devotees received initiations, blessings, steel spears pierced through their cheeks, steel rings hooked into their backs, from which ropes and weights were hung. Then picked their way among mounds of rubbish – milk cartons, coconut shells, bunches of bananas – to carry their burdens to the temple. Many people walked barefoot.

I can understand the Tamil Indian point of view, as it was eloquently explained by one man. Thaipusam is a hindu Indian festival in a muslim country where Indian (and Chinese) civil rights are not yet equal to those of Malay Malaysians. Apart from Shyam, and the man who joined us on the day, the volunteers were neither Indian Malaysian nor hindu. There is something of a fault line here. A hairline crack in the peaceful diversity Malaysia has managed to sustain – with remarkably few interruptions – since the country’s inception. Hence the interest of Special Branch.

We volunteers were interested in masses of people gathering for some single focus – as they do at other festivals, at pop concerts, sports events and so on – and behaving irresponsibly towards their immediate environment. As much as they are temporary crises, such gatherings are opportunities for raising awareness, where even a token effort gets noticed by many. In today’s age of imminent, irreversible human ecological impact, no activity can be condoned – or sustained – that does not take this sword of damocles into account. At one level it’s a no brainer. Mountains of trash on the ground, someone has to pick it up. If deeper questions are asked, it’s no bad thing.

Indeed what has happened to spirituality if a spiritual task is undertaken – preparation of an offering, say, or an initiation – and afterwards the stuff is heaved into the nearest river? What if a family make their annual pilgrimage to the temple – or the mosque or church or whatever spiritual locus – and eat takeaway food in the temple grounds or the park outside or the beach on the way home and stuff their styrofoam containers into the bole of the nearest tree?

We are talking of course of the compartmentalisation of spirituality. A box is drawn around behaviours deemed to be spiritual – the done thing. Outside it, Spiritual is set to off. We can despoil the park, defraud our fellow man, beat our wife. The box – the shell, if you prefer – limits Spirit, which is instantly and obviously suspect. With spirit boxed, with the genie back in the bottle, we are prone to some dangerous confusions. Religion and culture. Religion and politics. Religion and race. We can say that religion itself is a confusion.

All religions trace their roots back to the words and actions of an individual. Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad. Thousands of years later, the actions are only words. Perhaps even minutes later actions are only words. Some of those words still carry great power. But some carry a different sort of power. Divine words are powerful tools. Tempting to use them, manage them, adjust them. Inevitable that something is missed, something withers. We are dealing with husks – husks refitted with something else. Religion has been hijacked.

And with a few twists and turns, collecting trash from the bole of a tree becomes a threat.

There is a way out of this mess. I take my hat off to Shyam and other activists (in one sense many of them, in another they are still so few) who go out of their way to raise awareness. And of course there are plenty of people – at religious festivals and football matches alike – who understand that stuffing your takeaway packaging into the bole of a tree is bad behaviour. But there are still plenty who don’t.

The prevailing mindset is that the environment is some sort of innate surface, a bottomless pit from which nice things like food and diamonds magically appear, and into which not nice things can be stuffed and forgotten about. If the prevailing mindset thinks about the environment at all. The prevailing mindset is one severed from the environment, from Nature. The prevailing mindset has been hijacked.


Shyam and team preparing for action

The way out of the mess is simply to reconnect. To rejoin the conversation with Nature. In a way, it’s a very simple thing. And when we do it we realise that Nature has been talking to us all along. The transmission never loses power because it is constant. You may have noticed words like ‘shamanism’ elsewhere on this site. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps you are skeptical. Perhaps you think I am secretly referring to some sort of drug, or making a walk in the park and a breath of fresh air into something complicated.

In any case, simply consider this: everything in our bodies – our skin, hair, eyes, nails, even blood – comes from plants or from animals who eat plants, or in some cases from animals that eat other animals that eat plants. You get the idea. Everything. Tea, coffee, sugar and biscuits. Petrol. We can say that it is we humans that have, over the ages, perfected agriculture and industry that we can extract – take – what we need, what we want. Sure, we’ve been ingenious. So ingenious that we are scraping the bottom of the bottomless pit. We can drill the arctic for oil and turn rainforest into golf courses, blow up the Atlantic Ocean and race speedboats on it the next day.

Are we ingenious enough for this little thought experiment: What if all those good things – tea, coffee, biscuits – are given?

I had forgotten my tiredness, and any irritation over tent poles a few minutes into the work. It was satisfying work, which is reward in itself, but look at this: Interesting that Penang Thaipusam culminates on Jalan Waterfall. The Sampah Masyarakat volunteers ended up at a waterfall outside town, where we bathed in sun and sparkling clean water. Freely given, and most lovingly and gratefully received. That is the spirit of the conversation with Nature. Indeed, that is the conversation with Spirit.


Sampah Masyarakat

Shyam Priah, My Khatulistiwa