June 13, 2018

Initiation, the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, and You

digital theft pirate piracy
You're a spoiled brat.
via Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
For better and for worse, the information age and the advent of the Internet have totally -- and probably irreversibly -- changed the world in which we live. There are many luxuries that I enjoy, not the least of which is the ability for me to share my thoughts here on my blog, but more generally the ability to by-pass jealous gatekeepers and seek out whatsoever knowledge and information I desire. I will be the first to tell you that if not for the Internet I wouldn't be as accomplished or successful of a Tarot reader (or as insufferable of a Satanist?) as I am today.

The Internet has surely also been a big help for the occult community as well as practitioners and scholars of new and marginalized religions. But you know, the Internet gives with one hand and takes with the other. I myself don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but in terms of the occult community one of the things that's been taken is formal initiations. Me being who I am, I think that in practice initiations are largely unnecessary and only a means for vested interests to selfishly and sometimes counter-productively decide who gets to join the inner circle, but me being who I am, I also think that initiations are meaningful and capable of validating experience.

Fortunately or unfortunately -- depending on your viewpoint -- the Internet has by and large eliminated the power of gatekeepers and neutered the power of formal initiations to control an initiate's access to information (as well as manage the risk of the initiate stealing the information.) This has led to a broader occult community -- if such a thing can even be defined? -- in which formal initiations are the exception and not the rule, and like it or not but each individual is in almost all circumstances now responsible for initiating him or herself into the mysteries of his or her school of thought. 

Whether this process of self-initiation is overt and ritually performed, or whether it's largely unobserved and unrecognized, I believe that the end result of initiation (formal or informal) is the confidence and competence of the initiate. In formal initiations, whether or not a fee is explicitly paid, there is always an expression of gratitude, respect, recognition, and praise given to the master who made the initiate's ascension possible. But in self-initiations, where is this principle of reciprocity? Has the initiate consumed the knowledge of the master and figuratively kowtowed before him or her who deserves it? Or did the initiate consume the knowledge of the master and not even bother to credit the master for his or her contributions?

To give you an idea why this matters to me, I want to talk about a legal doctrine called the fruit of the poisonous tree which basically states that evidence illegally obtained cannot be used against the defendant. The way I see it, when an initiate is formally or self recognized, the defining principle at play is whether or not the initiate compensates the master in the manner specified by the master. I believe that when an initiate chooses to not recognize the master, this is the same as the fruit of the poisonous tree, and until such time as the initiate pays the immaterial or material price, the initiate's lineage is poisoned and should not be considered valid.

So what, then, does initiation cost? Well, it depends on the master.

If the master in question is another person offering formal initiation, then this may resemble the initiatory structure of a Wiccan coven which requires aspirants to spend a year and a day studying and practicing with the coven's leadership before being welcomed into the mysteries. Although I'm surely no scholar of Wicca, I'm pretty confident in saying that covens typically don't charge fees or even collect tithes of any kind except to cover incidental expenses. Wicca as a religion and Wiccans as people tend to have a sour attitude about money as a precondition for anything, so consequently the price of initiation is measured in terms of consistent participation and the aspirant's willingness to be respectful to him, her, or them showing the way.

It could also resemble the initiatory structure of the Freemasons in which aspirants are required to pay an initiation fee plus annual dues. Given the Freemasons' history of being an exclusive club for rich men, it's no surprise that this tradition continues to the present day, but then how else will the Freemasons keep their lodges standing if not for the dues paid by those initiated into their mysteries? Even if the Freemasons are using very nearly all of the money they collect for charitable purposes, and even if today the price of initiation has a mysterious way of changing relative to the aspirant's wealth and social station, there's still a price tag involved. It's understood among the Freemasons that although spiritual or intellectual devotion to the literature is important, initiates are also required to demonstrate their commitment to the figurative master through money.

It could also resemble the initiatory structure of a Reiki instructor who's willing to teach a two-day crash-course in the mysteries of spirit and "energy" manipulation: all the initiate need do is sign up for the course, pay the specified fee, and it's showtime, baby! In this case, the literal master is willing to impart all the necessary knowledge including a lineage noting every instructor who came before back to the first master -- although nobody can explain who initiated the first master? -- and the new initiate can now show his or her bona fides to anybody who asks.

The important thing to remember is that in all three of the above examples, the initiate figuratively or literally compensates the instructor. Whether it's respect and recognition, or good, old-fashioned money, the aspirant accepts that the "master" (whatever form he or she takes) was necessary for his or her initiation and in one way or another thanks, recognizes, praises, or even pays the master. That is the price for a formal initiation.

But what about self-initiation? In this example, the aspirant guides him or herself toward initiation through the study and application of the works of the master, and for many aspirants this usually means reading lots of books. As for the literal or figurative price of self-initiation, this largely depends on the master in question. 

If the master is long dead and gone, and especially his or her work can be considered part of the public domain, then the price is figurative and requires only that the student devote him or herself to really understanding the work of the master and give credit to the master for the knowledge consumed (instead of intellectually plagiarizing the work of the master and pretending that he or she has just always known these things.) Perhaps the work in question is still being published and may be purchased in a store? Or maybe the work long went out of publication and now exist only in digital format in the furthest recesses of the Internet? I accept that as a result of the passage of years, the widespread accumulation of initiates, or falling into obscurity that a time or circumstance may come when a master can no longer claim his or her work as his or her own exclusively.

Speaking for myself, I prefer books I can touch and hold, but I accept that in the example of books which have been digitized or which are borrowed from a public library (or another person who already paid the material cost of the book) that the aspirant may offer no material payment since there is no longer any master to benefit from such payment, or the knowledge of the master is so widespread as to make material payment irrelevant. In this case, the cost of initiation is figurative and looks like a strong degree of intellectual honesty on the part of the initiate to acknowledge and to speak fairly of the source of his or her knowledge. 

Or, if the master is alive and well, then the price for initiation is to access the work in question according to the master's preferences for how that work should be accessed. If the master has offered his or her book for commercial publication, then the price is quite literal and the aspirant should pay the specified price. If the master has offered the book free of charge, then the price is figurative and requires that the aspirant should give credit to the master for his her creation and not deceive others as to whence came the knowledge.

Do you get what I'm saying? Whether the book is exists in physical or digital form is unimportant. What matters is the preference of the master who created the work so desired by the aspirant.

There are opponents to the monetization of knowledge, and at least in terms of the writing produced by academics and scholars whose work is supported by public research grants, or who are employed by institutions of higher education, I agree with them. When the work of a master is only possible through the financial underwriting of the public, then the public has a right to access to fruit of that tree. But when the master in question is an author who financially supports him or herself (or his or her family) through his or her work, then not paying the literal price of initiation is equivalent to theft.

If you know damn well that the author of a work is alive and well, and intended his or her work to be accessed only on the condition of monetary compensation, then the aspirant who chooses to consume his or her work through an unlicensed digital source or download is a thief whose desired lineage is a poisonous tree that will never be clean until he or she satisfies the demands of the master. The price of self-initiation is to satisfy the conditions set by the master, and if the master has specified the price of initiation to be paying for the book, then the aspirant should just fucking pay for the god-damned book already.

"But James," I can hear you say, "What about masters who charge a price so high that nobody can benefit from their work? If nobody can afford to read their work, then the work will disappear into the sands of time, and there'll be nothing to inspire the future generations. We have a moral obligation to pirate authors' work!"

I'm going to skip over the suggestion that people are too stupid to think for themselves because I'd rather discuss the apologetic that without the efforts of thieves to digitize and disseminate an infinite number of stolen books that the work of the master might be lost forever. To that I say, So what? How do you know the intentions of the master who created the work? There are people who might find this difficult to believe, but there are still some masters who are elitists and who don't want their books given to the masses. "Pearls before swine," they say, and though I can't really know sure if this is so, I would bet any amount of money that there are masters who would rather their work faded into obscurity than be rendered as disgusting slop for indiscriminate and inconsiderate consumers. Or, if a master is insufficiently enlightened that he or she suffers counter-productive pride and prices him or herself into oblivion, that's his or her own consequence to endure and should serve as a lesson to other masters as to what literal or figurative price their initiates must pay.

All of which is a very long way of saying that I think it's the absolute worst kind of hypocrisy for an aspirant to claim that the work of a master is so sufficiently valuable that he or she is entitled to have it for free no matter the preference of the master, but that the same work of the same master is also so insufficiently valuable that the aspirant shouldn't be obligated to pay anything for the privilege of consuming it.

If you are such an aspirant who thinks that you can initiate yourself into the mysteries of an admired author without paying the specified price for initiation, then by all means you go ahead and do what you think is right. I have neither the time nor the means to evaluate your initiation, and so long as you never confess to your thievery then I'll never know one way or the other how you came by your knowledge and competence in your chosen interests. But if you open your mouth and tell me about all the fruit you ate from the poisonous tree, then you can be sure I'll tell you that you're unworthy of the knowledge you claim to revere. No matter what else you prove with your words, you have proven by your actions that you believe the fruit of your master is worthless, and in my eyes so are you.

June 08, 2018

Reverse Tarot Reading: Do you look into the Tarot, or does it look into you?

satanic tarot and satanism

I'm going to preface this blog entry by saying that this approach may not be unusual for anybody else, but me being the reader that I am and the way that I approach a reading, this for me is the exception, not the norm. Having said that, one of the rules that I observe in reading cards is that the cards themselves are the flesh of a reading, but a specific arrangement is the skeleton which gives shape to the flesh. Absent a skeletal arrangement, the flesh is no more than a loose, undefined bag of potential. For example, I'm the kind of reader who very nearly always uses set or improvised arrangements which specify, "This card represents the past; this card represents the subject of the reading; this card represents the obstacle," and so on. This is how I was taught to read Tarot, and it's worked so well for me over the past 15+ years that I've never been convinced of a reason to change it.

But having said that, I do on occasion when I'm reading for myself like to take a more contemplative approach to the cards where I have less control over the process and also less ability to predetermine the kind of answers I expect to find in a reading. On such an occasion, I'll use something that I call a reverse Tarot reading in which I lay out cards for the past, present, and future, but not a single card for anything else. For me, this kind of arrangement breaks what is perhaps my preeminent rule that every reading must have a primary anchor card to represent the subject of the reading. There are readers who don't use anchor cards -- they probably call it a "significator card" -- but I think they should because the anchor card represents the subject of the reading, whereas all the other cards on the table are at best representative only of extended aspects of the subject, and at worst the territory through which the subject is travelling. Without an anchor card, the reference cards are orphaned planets without a star around which to orbit. But in a reverse Tarot reading, absent a specified anchor, my perspective within the reading is free to change depending on what among the total number of cards on the table is most important to me. 

So to give you an idea how this works, remember that of course each individual card in the Tarot deck means something. Some are representative of health, money, or power; others are representative of the self, passion, or perspective. And so on and so on, to the conclusion that instead of stating a question ("What will my finances look like in the coming month?") and then drawing cards to fit my query, I draw cards and then let them tell me the things which I may ask based on what is present. So for example, I myself may be concerned about my finances, but if none of the nine cards present in this arrangement indicate money, then finances aren't up for discussion. 

But if there is any of the nine cards present in the arrangement which indicate money, then each in turn is used as my anchor card and read in pair with every other card on the table as a point of reference. Additionally, because each position in this arrangement indicates not a person, situation, or thing but a point in time, then I must consider not only when this money did appear, is appearing, or will appear, but how it allied, neutral, or opposed to other points of reference within my past, present, or future.

You might think that just nine cards on the table isn't a big deal, but when you select one card as the anchor and then read it reference to the other 8 cards present, this is not a matter of interpreting nine cards on the table, but of evaluating 36 different two-card combinations (which ends up feeling a lot more like a 72-card arrangement than a nine-card arrangement, but who's counting?)

So to give you an example how this works, let's go over a few rules for this arrangement:
  • There is one position for the distant past.
  • There are two separate positions for the recent past.
  • There are three separate positions for the present.
  • There are two separate positions for the near future.
  • There is one position for the distant future.
  • Don't pose questions to the cards. Instead, look at the meaning presented by each card to see what you're allowed to discuss in the reading.
  • When you find something that you want to discuss, no matter where in time this card is present, it becomes your anchor card against which all other cards are measured.
  • One by one, read your anchor card paired with a reference card to see how it is supported, is antagonized, supports, or antagonizes other points in time.
And just in case this isn't clear from the image at the top of the page, the black lines don't indicate cards that are read as a group, but is instead only a visual reference to help easily identify the diagonal orientation of the arrangement.



Continuing our discussion, let's return to that question about money. What do you suppose that this arrangement has to tell me? First, I've got figure out which cards if any discuss what I want to know about:
  • PRESENT (top left): King of Diamonds
    • RECENT PAST (bottom middle): XXI, The World
  • DISTANT FUTURE (top right): Ace of Spades
  • RECENT PAST (bottom left): Ace of Hearts
So right away I can see that there's a discussion about money in the present that continues into the distant future, but because of my eccentricities in how I read the cards, it's also important to say that the King of Diamonds is only able to discuss money when paired with a trump card, and the only one present is in the recent past (XXI, the World). Also owing to one of my eccentricities as a card reader, I consider the King of Diamonds the governor of the Ace of Diamonds, so this links part of my present directly to the distant future, but in this case the King of Diamonds ceases discussing money and shifts instead to a discussion about power, influence, and reputation contributing to the Ace of Diamonds which does discuss money. The other thread in this increasingly tangled web is the Ace of Hearts which doesn't specifically reference money, but does reference debt and other people's money, and owing to it sharing the same pip value as the Ace of Diamonds represents a link between the recent past and the distant future in terms of money lost and money earned. Getting sufficiently convoluted for you yet?

In this hypothetical reading, there are three cards which will tell me about my finances. There's a whole lot else that I can discuss, but just hitting the high point we see a largely encompassing matter of debt in the recent past which has motivated me toward doing the best I can with what I've got in terms of my professional abilities and also created a strong drive for balanced financial accomplishment in the future. In the present, I am still accumulating debt but without the burdens of past financial mis-steps based on wishful thinking, and am instead welcoming a more balanced approach to managing my finances and income. Moving into the distant future, after much effort to wield discipline over myself and also to improve my standing in the eyes of professional peers and potential clients, finances are reestablished, debt is repaid, and my own foundations are strengthened despite the weakening economic environment in which I find myself representative of larger issues that go beyond my own personal concerns.

See how this arrangement works? I don't decide in advance what I want to discuss. Instead, I lay down cards and then discuss only that which the cards offer to me. This kind of Tarot reading is something I don't offer for my clients because it's the sort of reading where I like to sit at the table, drink a beer, and eat some tomato-and-cheese on toast while thinking quietly to myself. This arrangement invites solitary contemplation and an open mind free of specific desires in order to appreciate the tangled nuance it's capable of offering, and is also something that I might spend 45 minutes or more just stewing over. In my estimation, this is as close as it gets to having somebody else read my cards for me. Maybe it'll be the same for you? Try it out and let me know what you think.

June 01, 2018

June 2018: Happy Birthday to Me

via GoHowi.com
On the 6th of June 2018 at precisely 3:10pm (give or take a few minutes) I will be 35 years old. In the Satanic tradition, my own birthday should be the highest holiday of my year, but I find it difficult to get excited about birthdays the way I could when I was much younger. When I was in grade-school, the accumulating pressure of anticipation for the ecstasy of promised presents, cake, and friends was something that would send me into a spiral for weeks in advance, but over the years has been replaced by a quiet appreciation for the people closest to me. I still enjoy a good cake, and am of course grateful for any presents that are given (though I no longer request or expect gifts), but the atmosphere of party cannons, unquestioned smiles, and go-along-to-get-along has long faded.

In the final calculation, this year has been one in which I've been asking myself, "Does the river shape the rock, or does the rock shape the river?" This summary of my past year is something that I've been trying to put into words for several months, and while I've finally managed to put it into words, I still have doubts that I'm properly expressing myself. If you get to the end of this letter and feel like something's missing, you'll have to let me know what it is because I can't figure it out to save my life.

At any rate... there are long-winded ruminations I could make on the nuance between the rock's and the river's perspective, but obviously the answer is that both shape each other. This process of mutual redirection and erosion has been a persistent theme for me this past year, especially as I process the last remaining traces of my association with the Church of Satan. Regular followers of this blog will have noticed a gradual transition over the past 8-12 months away from the goat-heavy themes of the Church of Satan and more toward the enlightenment themes of the so-called Illuminati. Just to get this out of the way, I don't believe that the Illuminati exists in the popular, conspiratorial sense, but just like the myth of Satan I find the myth of the Illuminati to be personally stimulating and a productive way of expressing and differentiating myself.

Seeing as the Church of Satan was my first exposure to Satanism, my understanding of the definition of Satanism will be forever colored by the work of Dr. LaVey and Magus Gilmore. Now, don't get me wrong: this isn't a complaint, and in terms of initial influences I could have done a whole lot worse. What I'm saying is that my foundational understanding of the concept of Satanism will probably be forever biased in favor of an atheistic, indulgent, and rationalist worldview which favors individual will-to-power, deliberate antagonism of deserving victims, self-deification, and the use of greater magic.

As before, once again: I'm not complaining. This understanding of Satanism -- and my application of it to my career as a Tarot card reader, in particular -- has contributed to vast improvements in my personal and professional happiness. Whatever differences of opinion I have about what the Church of Satan has become, I'll always be grateful to Dr. LaVey and Magus Gilmore for their intellectual contributions to my life. In this example, I suppose you could say that they were the rock that reshaped my river...

... or was I the rock shaped by their river? I sometimes wonder if this isn't the case, because even as I work to redefine my understanding of Satanism in line with the principles which became my core, I find that the rock which I believed to be myself is no longer the same as it used to be. Bruce Lee once famously said that self-improvement isn't a matter of daily increase, but decrease -- hack away the unessential! But what happens when -- cut after cut -- very little remains? Does the whole of the rock fracture into separate halves? Will the lesser half be carried away by the river? Or will both halves sink into the silt at the bottom of the river, never to regain their definition?

Since parting ways with the Church of Satan, I've chosen to join the Satanic Temple for the same reason that I joined the Church of Satan: I appreciate the work they're doing and want them to know that for however much or little I'm worth they have my support intellectually and from time to time financially. I've gained an appreciation for their decentralized approach to the study and understanding of Satanism, and am grateful that they've pierced the echo chamber of the Church of Satan.

In terms of religious expression and the reason and method of ritual, I think that the Satanic Temple is not one step out of line with the Church of Satan. The Satanic Temple also shares a few other pillars of thought with the Church of Satan, the core pillar being perhaps the improvement of the individual and those things of concern to the individual; however, the two organizations build upon this pillar differently. Whereas the Church of Satan generally favors the greater jihad of improving the individual him or herself exclusively, the Satanic Temple generally favors the lesser jihad of improving the world in which the individual lives.

But one of the reasons that the Satanic Temple shares what at times feels like quite a bit with the Church of Satan is because the Satanic Temple was founded in part by at least one person who was a long-time member of the Church of Satan. In the river of Satanism, the rock that is the Church of Satan split (and not for the first time) into separate pieces. In this case, neither piece sank to the bottom of the river, and both have instead taken up prominent positions to shape the river. I can already hear members of the Satanic Temple groaning on the other side of the interwebs, but I think that the difference between the Satanic Temple and the Church of Satan isn't one of substance, but expression, and I also think that this is a strength and a testament to the growth and development of Satanism as a modern religion (versus the sole property of a jealous priesthood).

There are others who've criticized the Satanic Temple for not going far enough to differentiate itself from the Church of Satan, but I don't agree with this criticism, and I may yet discuss my reasons why when I can neatly articulate them, but in terms of rocks and rivers -- What did anybody expect? Why does anybody expect the Satanic Temple to be shaped by neither the river nor the rock from which it came? If interested critics are going to require the Satanic Temple to clear a bar of complete originality and total individuation, then this same bar applies to the Church of Satan whose foundational book cribs liberally and overtly from other established authors and bodies of thought.

And finally, to bring this all back to me, I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't redirect the river of my self away from the Satanic Temple? I appreciate the work the national organization is doing, and I've enjoyed a lot of the content coming from and conversation with other TST members, but I have neither the time nor the energy to organize TST-friendly Satanists in my city, and even if I did then I think that I could do it only as a rock smoothed by the river of the Church of Satan. It's not my goal to apply my own CoS-influenced understanding of Satanism in support of an organization that's working pretty damn hard to not duplicate the culture of the Church of Satan. In these moments, I wonder that I would contribute more through my absence than my presence? Who knows...

But then, even by talking about these things I'm contributing (perhaps only a trickle?) to a larger river of change that is shaping, smoothing, and eroding the broader rock of Satanism within the even larger river of culture. I suppose my only birthday wish for the next year is that my own rock remains above others' rivers, and my own river is not dammed by others' rocks. 

Happy birthday to me.