Words of the magi: An interview with Alan Chapman and Duncan Barford

Altered States, photo by H Koppdelaney

Alan Chapman and Duncan Barford of The Baptist’s Head and Open Enlightenment were kind enough to answer several questions I put to them.

Did you formulate the Core Practice techniques immediately after attaining the Knowledge & Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel [K&C], or did it follow your successful crossing of the Abyss?

ALAN: I attained the K&C using a free-form ritual technique, but I came to develop a simpler method based on Father Thomas Keating’s centred prayer as I persisted in invoking the HGA through the years.

The bare-bones Core Practice described in Alan’s essay bears a strong  resemblance to vipassana meditation, and Duncan has mentioned a long-standing interest in Buddhism. In your work, each of you pay homage to Daniel Ingram and his fantastic work. At what point did you pick up the links between wisdom traditions and decide to adopt vipassana into your regular practice?

ALAN: I’ve never adopted vipassana as part of my regular practice, although it was during my crossing of the abyss that I came to realise the same process was described by the Therevada progress of insight model. Later, I discovered the same process described in the Ten Zen Ox-Herding Pictures, the alchemical process, and many other traditions.

DUNCAN: My chaos magical training demanded regular meditation practice, but I’d fallen out with Buddhism 10 years beforehand and had not practised since then. I discovered Ingram’s work on the Internet and found it absolutely awesome. Suddenly so much dropped into place that had been missing from my engagement with Buddhism a decade earlier. Chaos magic had instilled in me the realization that you can just do stuff, and the practice of magick in general had laid the groundwork for understanding how reality is malleable and constructed from the mind.

Ingram’s mastery of vipassana was daunting at first, not least because of the intense sensations of envy it aroused in me. But everyone is crap at meditation in the beginning. If you keep at it and do it properly, you make progress. The largest part of my practice has been straight-up dry vipassana. It was Alan who took up Ingram’s work and showed me the links between it and the other maps of enlightenment, including the A.’.A.’. and Tree of Life model. The realization that the aim of magic is the same as enlightenment I owe to Alan.

Like Aleister Crowley, you each evoked Choronzon during the period of crossing the Abyss. Could you touch on the nature of this entity? Do you think the traditional Abramelin work of calling up the legions of Hell and binding them to the Great Work works in an analogous manner? Any words of advice or warning for those working towards the K&C?

ALAN: Choronzon can be considered the embodiment of a particular stage within the process of enlightenment known as The Spiritual Crisis, the dukkha nanas (in Theravada Buddhism), or The Dark Night (in Christian Mysticism). Engaging with the process of enlightenment on a magical basis entails the manifestation of these stages as visions, synchronicities or — in this particular case – as an encounter with an entity. It is not necessary to engage with the process in strictly magical terms, and for the dry meditater he or she need not expect an encounter with Choronzon although they will most certainly experience the Spiritual Crisis.

The Abramelin work of calling up the legions of Hell and binding them to the Great Work is something entirely different from the encounter with Choronzon. The binding of the demons can be considered preparatory work in ensuring all aspects of the self are in line with the aim of the magician. Using such a model, this work would take place before reaching the stage of the Spiritual Crisis. Working with Abramelin demons, in my opinion, is neither necessary nor desirable in magically engaging with the process of enlightenment. If anything, they are nothing but a pain in the arse. My advice for people working towards the K&C is to invoke often, don’t be scared, and persist.

DUNCAN: You certainly do not need intentionally to evoke Choronzon if you are engaging with the process. He will come. I remember getting hung up on trying to force his appearance – but this was a waste of time. Confusion, disgust with the process, and the certain realization that it is all completely pointless are among the most common and the powerful manifestations that Choronzon can take. Be especially on your guard against these.

Your records of attainment for the grades of Magister Templi and Magus are rich and wonderful. I find myself returning to them regularly and find the cutting through the bullshit really refreshing. In the Church of Satan and Temple of Set, each Magus utters a Word which supports that of the current Aeon. I didn’t find any mention in your own works regarding this issue.1 Comments?

ALAN: I received a word from my HGA whilst performing the core practice some time during the stage of Magus. This word led to my discovery of the English Qaballah. It encapsulated my definition of magick and would later reveal the function and meaning of The Baptist’s Head. It perfectly encapsulated the sphere into which I was cast out (see below). Reference to this word is found in my magical record.

DUNCAN: My word was also received well into the grade of Magus, during an intense dream in which a horrifying creature appeared. I recognised I was dreaming, mastered the fear and embraced the monster. The dream then continued, and the word was given. It is an archaic Greek word that means “to deceive.” It appears in Homer, where it is used in a context that reveals its meaning as “deception” but in a sense very close to “perception.” It confirmed for me that the source and the destination of my development lies in the Platonic tradition. An account of this is included in my magical record.

On to the controversy! On April 3rd, 2009, the first post on your site Open Enlightenment went up. Correct me if mistaken, but this reflected each of your claim to having experienced the big one, final enlightenment.

To start off, since this event happened after you each completed the tasks of Magus. Does this mark the entering of the grade of Ipsissimus? Considering the mythology of the grade in the context of your writings, it seems that maybe this is where the Buddhist practice of morality comes into play. If a task of the Ipsissimus is to get everyone (each rock and grain of dust) into the boat of Enlightenment, then the job is never done and so no living person can claim the grade. Am I just talking out of my ass here?

ALAN: I’m afraid so! Yes, enlightenment proper is the attaining of the grade of Ipsissimus, and accounts of our experience with enlightenment can be found on The Baptist’s Head, as well as on Open Enlightenment. So yes, you can consider myself and Duncan Ipsissimi (not sure if that is the correct plural!).

I’m pretty sure a lot of people will find such claims delusional, insane, impossible or egotistical. I emphatically urge anyone reading this not to believe a single word we say; all I ask is that you give fair consideration to our records of the process, and repeat the practices we followed to confirm for yourself, if you are interested in enlightenment.

Contrary to more or less everything I bet you’ve heard on the subject, enlightenment is a very real, natural human development that is not dependent on race, sex, education, wealth, sexual preferences, culture or geographical location. Enlightenment is your birthright as a human being, and you don’t have to engage with enlightenment on a solely magical basis, or even entertain the pompous sounding titles we’ve inherited from the 18th Century for the various stages of the process.

The Buddhist practice of morality is one of the three trainings undertaken by the Buddhist at the very beginning of his or her practice; it cannot be separated from the other two, concentration and wisdom. The equivalent of an Ipsissimus in the Buddhist model is the arhat, but it would make no sense for an arhat to begin morality training only after enlightenment.

Likewise, morality for the Thelemite begins before enlightenment in its form as the expression of the True Will. The grade of Ipsissimus is not defined by Buddhist morality, nor is the task of the Ipsissimus to enlighten everyone and everything. For a definition of the tasks of the various grades of the A.’.A.’., please see One Star in Sight.

Duncan, I was hoping that we could delve a bit into your magickal background, establish the credentials as it were. In your bio, you mention paranormal experiences as a teenager leading to your first magical experiments. Would you care to expand on that?

DUNCAN: They were nothing too atypical for anyone who dabbles in those areas. Most of it resulted from making and playing with a Ouija board when I was 13. We had spirits giving us messages, objects moving around, some anomalous energetic phenomena.

The most important aspect of this was that, in later life, those experiences just kept coming back to my mind and wouldn’t leave me alone. I was trying to settle into a “normal” life with a proper job and responsibilities, but how can you do that when you’ve witnessed for yourself reality refusing to behave in the way that we’re told it ought to? That’s what finally determined me to take up magick. I ought to have done it much sooner.

Once you took up magick, did you move straight into results-oriented work? How did you approach the Goetia? Do you think missing the lion-hide belt spelled disaster, something more basic like neglecting triangle or circle, or just divided will and poor concentration?

DUNCAN: My first self-consciously magical work was learning how to scry. I bought a picture-frame, painted the glass black, and sat on Halloween night staring into it by candlelight. I had visions of a woman dressed as a priestess and then set off on trying to find out who she was. (The goddess Athena, it turned out.) At the same time I took up Goetia – just because I thought that was what magicians did.

My first Goetic working was in order to attract some like-minded people. Of course, you don’t need to resort to Goetia for something like that — it was a completely stupid and poorly thought-through intent…But a few days after the ritual (the demon manifested as a wailing voice in the wall of my bedroom – which was pretty freaky), I was on an interview panel to select a new software developer at the place where I worked. After the person we chose began work, I borrowed a CD from him that contained some software – but also a lot of pirated ebooks on magick. It turned out that the person I had selected was deeply into magic and he introduced me to the chaos magick scene. I’m still in contact with him; he’s also the person who’s had the most mind-bending results from working with Goetia that I’ve ever come across. But I soon learned from experience that Goetia is “leaky” magic (as another magical colleague brilliantly described it).

After the first ritual, a glowering sense of brooding evil lingered in my home for days. Shortly after another ritual, my girlfriend’s hair caught fire. On that occasion, whilst doing the evocation, objects inside the circle started rolling across the carpet — which seemed very evidently a message from the demon that it could get at me whenever it liked. I haven’t touched Goetia since, although I confess I have since taken part in group Goetic workings.

The problem with Goetia is that it’s simply a shitty magical framework. Why bother working with entities that want to fuck you up, when there are other entities that obviously have your best interests closer to heart?

Now, you have stated that Alan’s success with his HGA working led you to begin your own. Did this decision come as his results were just so interesting or did you feel an existential hole in/revealed by your practice?

DUNCAN: It’s difficult to remember now. I don’t think I sensed a lack in my practice at the time, because I doubt I’d advanced far enough to be aware of such a thing. I was already getting some interesting results in my own work, including invocations of LAM according to the instructions provided by the Typhonian OTO. In one of these visions LAM explicitly told me to approach Alan for advice – so I did. When I saw the amazing work he was doing and its results, I followed along. (Thank you, LAM.)

The problem with a lot of magicians is that they have big egos and so are always trying to convince themselves that they know best. But it’s important to recognize people who know more than you do, listen to what they say, and test out their ideas for yourself. It was obvious to me that Alan was onto something important. Daniel Ingram has said that the reason he got enlightened was that he learnt how to follow instructions. And he’s another wise old stick to whom I’m very indebted.

I think your account of attaining the K&C is fascinating, and mirrors my own in a way. You had decided to memorize Liber Samekh and work it until you attained, then hit a home run on your first time working through it.

Both of our experiences, along with Alan’s, (and really, many suggestions that Crowley gives), contraindicate the position that attaining the K&C is something only for supermen. Crowley’s own experience and his need for multiple attempts adds to this expectation. Did the mythology surrounding the K&C make it difficult for you to accept that the event had actually occurred?

DUNCAN: I didn’t use Liber Samekh, as such, it was the plain old Bornless Ritual. And I confess to not having much knowledge at all at the time of the traditional procedures.

ALAN: I just assumed that, magick-wise, anything Crowley could do I could do, because he’s just a human being.

DUNCAN: Because we had both come up through a chaos magick background, you have the expectation that you can get results straight away, regardless of the amount of fuss you make about it. I think that in retrospect this must have helped a lot, because I didn’t have the assumption that what I was doing had to be virtually impossible or take a life-time.

I had the understanding that after the K&C, I would never have any trouble deciding what to eat for breakfast, whether the girl favoured me or not, and my entire career path would be laid out before me. What do you say to those individuals who would challenge your attainment of the K&C?

The OTO is not exactly churning out individuals who have attained the K&C. This in an organization dedicated to Crowley’s word and praxis. Do you think this reflects on your claim, or the organization more?

ALAN: First of all, most people who have dealt with the topic entertain a bad model of the K&C usually as a result of a naïve view of how magical results manifest. For instance, if I believed that the K&C can only occur as a literally physical manifestation of the HGA in a puff of smoke to address me in a booming biblical voice, possibly in Hebrew, then I would say it is near-enough impossible for anyone to gain the K&C.

I can’t comment for every member of the OTO, because I haven’t met them all, but it’s probable that an organisation dedicated to Crowley’s word will have bought into Crowley’s histrionics on the subject (and many OTO members that I have met have done just that). Sadly, it’s my experience that most Thelemites have failed to acknowledge the wonderful contributions of chaos magick, leaving them looking somewhat naïve when it comes to practical magick. With bad expectations of both magical results and the K&C, it’s no wonder that not many Thelemites have even attempted the K&C, and those that have, have failed.

As you have developed through the stages of enlightenment, what changes in your relative abilities have you noticed?

I remember the claim that magickal effectiveness gets about 10 times better after the K&C. With your account of the Andrew Cohen seminar, I can’t help wondering, do you have the ability of shaktiput now? Does just being in your presence accelerate others development?

DUNCAN: Magical effectiveness has improved vastly, but I don’t do as much practical sorcery as I used to. Things seem to fall into place more easily on the whole, and there hasn’t been as much need. The Absolute takes the place of all that.

ALAN: Working with the HGA is a magical engagement with the process of enlightenment. The biggest lesson for me in gaining the K&C was the revelation that I am not the centre of the universe. It is not the magician that does the HGA but the HGA that does the magician. The egotistical whims of the magician are set aside in favour of the will of the universe. As such, the view of a causal relationship between a magician and his magical results becomes largely redundant. What is normally called magical results certainly increase, but it would be foolish to consider these results as a product of some kind of newly acquired super-powers.

Regarding shaktiput, or the transmission of enlightenment from one person to another, my comments on the will of the universe apply here too. It is not the case that a person who has experienced enlightenment possesses either enlightenment or the magical power to transmit this experience. Shaktiput is simply a case of intersubjective enlightenment between two or more individuals who are ready and able to experience enlightenment. It’s not a question of whether myself and Duncan can transmit enlightenment to others, but whether or not a person is capable of experiencing intersubjective enlightenment.

DUNCAN: Certainly, no one has made any comments to me about any radiance or auras manifesting from my direction.

Following your claim of experiencing full enlightenment, I noticed quite a furore from the parts of the online Buddhist community that I follow (presumably based upon this). Did the response from these communities, supposedly dedicated to traditions of realization, surprise you?

DUNCAN: Outside of Dharma Overground, I don’t tend to follow many Buddhist websites, so the furore was lost on us. The resistance of Buddhists to what seems to me the whole point of their tradition never ceases to amaze.

I meditate at a Buddhist Centre every week, and am constantly a witness to cases of people who have been meditating in this tradition for decades without even a whiff of the first jhana. When I attempt to introduce even the mildest technical terms into discussions, these are shunned or denied. I’ve not declared my arahatship to people at the centre, but I suppose it’ll come out one day! I hope they don’t throw me out.

So, the short answer is: no, this reaction from self-professed Buddhists doesn’t surprise us at all. But by no means all Buddhists share the same view, and we’re proud to be friends and allies with many of the ones who don’t.

It seems you continue to receive discouragement from what I’ll refer to as the enlightenment community.  In light of this, I’d like to go back to your criticisms of Western occultism and chaos magick in particular. To crudely paraphrase, if chaos magick is a vital tradition, where are all the realized individuals.

It seems to me that, per capita, chaos magick might be ahead of the game here. If I give you the chaotes who can’t be relied on to feed a friend’s cat, then I expect you to give me all the lay people in Asia as well as American Buddhists, yogis, Sufis, etc. who also can’t be relied on to feed a friend’s cat. It seems I’m asking, do you give any slack to a tradition which allows for individuals within it to attain without it as the doctrinal purpose when the groups who claim to support attainment suppress frank discussions about it and often seem to disbelieve in the possibility of attainment?

ALAN: The purpose of chaos magick is not enlightenment, but the use of belief as a tool. Chaos magick is, therefore, not an enlightenment tradition and so its lack of enlightened practitioners is not comparable to the failings of the enlightenment traditions of the east.

It should be noted that chaos magick is flexible enough to recognize and accept enlightenment as a real, natural and attainable human experience, being a practice-based tradition. The mainstream examples of Buddhism, yoga and other eastern traditions of enlightenment are, in contrast, examples of dogma. I have never come across an ineffective Sufi lineage.

DUNCAN: We give chaos magick a hard time, but we know the chaos magicians can take it! So far, the chaos magicians we’ve debated with have lived up to the motto of “nothing is true, everything is permitted,” because they’ve tolerated our criticisms and not thrown us off the scene. I’ve never come across a more tolerant and intelligent group of people.

But, as Alan says, chaos magick is not an enlightenment tradition and its affiliation with the tenets of post-modernism has rendered it narcissistic and egocentric in many respects. It doesn’t admit the Absolute, and therefore it doesn’t have the means to entertain even the concept of enlightenment — at present.

The two of you both support experiencing final enlightenment before focusing on engaging the relative. In particular, I’m thinking of Buddhist paths of morality and concentration. The Book of the Law professes a very different understanding of morality practice than Old Aeon traditions.

Duncan, you mentioned having moved away from practicing. Not to pick on you, but you described an ambivalence which continues, though you have experienced enlightenment . What are your thoughts on New Aeon morality practice? Has the peer-group of Old Aeon practictioners perhaps facilitated this trend?

ALAN: I know your question is aimed at Duncan, but predictably I have something to say. As someone who is not a Buddhist, I do not ascribe to the three trainings, nor do I see morality as a set of rules to be followed. This does not mean that I promote the idea of getting enlightened first and dealing with life later.

The morality of The Book of the Law is summed up nicely in a single sentence: Do what thou wilt. From the Thelemic viewpoint, morality is a question of acting in accordance with your true nature. Yes, The Book of the Law attributes behaviour to the hermit in complete opposition to the traditional view of the ascetic, but this is merely a device to illustrate that enlightenment is not simply the province of celibate troglodytes. It should be remembered that Liber Legis is delivered from three distinct perspectives on the same subject; we shouldn’t make the mistake of literalism (“stamp down the wretched and the weak,” etc.). “Do what thou wilt” is only realised when we engage with the process of enlightenment, and so the magician begins to exercise Thelemic morality the minute he or she lets go of the reins and allows his or her true will — which is indistinguishable from the will of the universe — to exercise itself unencumbered.

Now, it’s not in Duncan’s nature to get shit-faced and act like a whore; it would just be silly to expect to find him in a purple bed covered in jewels, with a huge stash of spice in his cupboard. This is simply not his will.

DUNCAN: However, I do own a leopard-skin bedspread…In fact, Alan and I are both sitting on it right now…My own views on morality are that it is something to be inferred from actions rather than applied to them.

Once the true nature of the relationship with the Absolute has been realized, no other view seems tenable because all the shoulds and oughts that divided the self formerly (or seemed to) are now seen for what they are: reactions and sensations arising within the relative. After enlightenment, it’s less easy to mistake them for rules or injunctions that appear to proceed from the Absolute. For this reason it seems to me to do no harm landing enlightenment as soon as possible, otherwise it’s more likely that a model of morality based on an idea of following rules (or, indeed, on breaking them) will persist.

This is not free, because any model that bases itself on rules is by its nature cut off from the Absolute and emerges from a divided and false self. The lesson I learnt on the retreat you refer to was that old habits die hard. Enlightenment doesn’t destroy anything, so it doesn’t make habits go away, but it does make it easier to see them for what they are, and so over time they become easier to deal with.

In the essay “Magic with a K”, Alan claims that Setianism is a counter-tradition. That it traffics with entities who prohibit the metaphysical process. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this comes from the Setian seeking the goal of immortality for what they refer to as the Isolate Intelligence of each individual.

In Uncle Setnakt’s Essential Guide to the Left Hand Path, Don Webb mentions the Setian’s quest for enlightenment. Stephen Flowers addresses how Crowley could be achieve enlightenment and be a lord of the left-hand path in his book of that title. If the emphasis on relative immortality is indeed the issue, at what point is the qualitative line drawn between feeding yourself and providing for one’s general needs and one striving for immortality? 

ALAN: The problem with Setianism, and the viewpoint you give here, is the very essence of the counter-tradition itself: the misunderstanding of enlightenment, or of our essential nature. The idea that the ego has to die, or is somehow destroyed or damaged by enlightenment, is a false belief; but nevertheless, it is a very real fear. We are born believing we are a subject or separate self, and that we must die; the motivation of the Setian is based on a perfectly understandable reaction to this, resulting in doing everything possible to re-enforce the subject, such as investigating the naïve hope of physical immortality.

But the truth is that we are not subjects or separate, and our essential nature was never born nor can it die. The direct, personal experience of this is enlightenment. Many of our actions, perspectives and behaviours are based on the ignorance of our nature, and the futile wish for immortality, for a self or subject that never existed anyway, necessarily drops with enlightenment.

This doesn’t mean that we are no longer human with everything that entails; and far from being a transcendence or escape from being human, it is the realization of an absolute intimacy with all experience — it is the acceptance of everything and the avoidance of nothing. With enlightenment, for the first time in our lives we can enjoy being human simply for its own sake, just as it is.

Also, contrary to what many a supposed “left hand” magician would have you believe, the difference between the left-hand path and the right-hand path is one of method, not aim. They both facilitate enlightenment. See Tantra for a valid example of the left-hand path.

As magi, an essential part of you burns as dust in the City of the Pyramids but what about the sphere into which your “Star cast forth to give light to the earth?” Could you tell us more about your sense of mission and plans for the future? Do each of you feel like you shine in the same areas, or do you have complimentary roles? Where does this lead to?

DUNCAN: I had a dream about an organisation called AYIN Waste Disposal when I went on my first retreat. The path AYIN on the tree of life shows that I was cast out into Hod.

I’m an intellectual and literary soul at heart. I’m good at technical crap, little details, and I want to write lots of books about interesting things. My HGA informed me it is an aspect of the archangel Gabriel, who is often associated with communication, healing and the emotions. In one of our Enochian visions (or maybe it was a personal HGA working — I’m not sure) we were told that our future magical destiny involved Alan driving a tank, and myself manning an ambulance that followed in its wake. Make of that what you will!

ALAN: We should be careful not to take the Thelemic model of the process of enlightenment as a literal description of what is experienced. It is metaphor (even though I have seen the various different stages occur during vision), and extremely helpful and accurate at that. But there is no burning of essential parts!

“Casting out into a sphere” is a metaphor for the individual acting in his or her true nature as a result of undergoing the process of enlightenment. The tree of life is a complete filing system for any experience or phenomenon one might encounter, and this includes the personality. Generally, my nature fits very nicely under the sphere Geburah, and once I had crossed the abyss, or enjoyed a peak experience of enlightenment, this is the sphere I was “cast out into.” I’m  not afraid of confrontation that results from simply telling the truth. As such, I expect my future to include a lot of abuse from people who don’t like what I have to say. I’ve had it from occultists for saying magick, crossing the abyss and the Great Work are not the sole province of special people, and I’m currently under attack from Buddhists and the wider enlightenment community for talking about enlightenment as if it was an ordinary, natural experience available to everyone. Bring it on!

First published on Plutonica.net 18 September 2009.

Image credit: H Koppdelaney

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  1. Ed: Alan mentions it here. []
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