Harnessing Divine Wind with Pranayama (and an astrological end note)

Not all organisms on earth require oxygen, but those of us set up with lungs to respire aerobically need it to live. So we breathe. We inhale air rich in oxygen but filled with other gases, bacteria, viruses, yeasts, water and countless other particles and exhale air similar in complexity but with proportionately more carbon dioxide.

But despite its centrality to our existence, for the most part we don’t have to worry about breathing. It just happens somewhere beneath our notice as a peaceful, rhythmic swelling and recoil of our lungs. If we’re relaxed and well, the process is mostly unconscious and controlled by our brainstems which are all also busy with other unconscious functions such as regulating our heart rates.

Breathing, in enabling life, also underlies our ideas of what is spiritual. Air and its movement – either as breathing or as the wind – is divine: inspiration is both filling the lungs with air and being influenced by deity. The English verb “to breathe,” may be related to the Proto-Indo-European, (s)peis- which is “to blow” and cognate with the Old Church Slavonic pisto “to play on the flute”: breathing, music, and the divine are all absolutely entangled.

But breathing is not always calm and unconscious any more than the gods are always kind, or music tuneful. In fact, when we’re distressed, very sick, endangered or physically overtaxed, it comes sharply to our attention as a jagged, shallow and laboured sucking in and blowing out. And even this breathing is unconscious. It might be as a response to increased energy demands or it might be an immune response, both mediated by the sympathetic nervous system which reacts to perceived threats by mobilizing the flight-or-fight response with hormones which speed the heart-rate and dilate the bronchial tubes. The latter response focuses our attention, makes us tense by increasing the contractility of our muscles while decreasing thirst and hunger and slowing digestive secretions and processes. We might also respond with some sickness behaviour. But our affective responses to these hormones are generally to feel energised, nauseated, anxious, afraid or angry and this is all very helpful in the event of immediate danger and threat. But, given the inherent inefficiencies of the fight-or-flight response in terms of energy outlay and excess waste production, and the depleting effect of sickness behaviour, such responses are damaging if they become chronic, habitual and long-term. In situations where perceived threat doesn’t go away, our sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive. We feel constantly and excessively anxious, or afraid and angry as our hormones continue to overexpress. Inflammatory processes go into overdrive and cause lasting damage which increases the rates of chronic disorders and illnesses like depression and lack of motivation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

But, when we can and want to, we take control and regulate breathing consciously. It’s what we do in speech, whistling and singing, and control tends to be about communication and music. And when breath – as sound, vibration and movement – is synchronised with the environment, it gives rise to the mystical – as in the Music of the Spheres – and the magical, as with the work of Renaissance writers such as Marcilio Ficino. The fact is, we raise enormous power in communal anthem singing and chanting when we, as a crowd, synchronise our inhalations, exhalations, hormone flows and heartbeats – and probably movements (as dancing) as well. More mundanely, we control breath when trying to stop hiccups, and when swimming and during exercise, especially yoga. And regarding this last, nowhere is the control of breath so developed as in the yogic practise of Pranayama.

Pranayama is the simultaneously divine and pragmatic discipline of breath which has belonged to Indian culture for thousands of years. It joins seven other physical and ethical principles which, in addressing together the human body and soul as a holistic entity, enable movement along the Noble Eightfold Path to a meaningful, purposeful and integrated life. Attainment of Samadhi – which is the yoking, or union, of the individual with the Supreme Spirit – is the ever-present bright goal which is realised fleetingly along the way but permanently at the end of this journey.

Pranayama combines two Sanskrit words: The first is prana which refers to the life force, in particular as breath, but which is also found in blood and at its most concentrated in semen and vaginal secretions. The second is ayama which means to extend or draw out. Thus the word contains connotations of lengthening and deepening each individual breath whilst simultaneously lengthening the whole individual lifespan.

To remove Pranayama from the religious context of the Eightfold Path is to sacrifice some of its associated holistic benefits. This path is called Ashtanga or ‘eight limbs’ and combines ideas of universal and individual ethics with physical postures intended to rest the spinal cord, shift the centre of gravity, massage the organs, and strengthen the body. It calls for control of the senses, development of concentration, the practise of meditation and, at the end of it all, it promises sakadhi or bliss. But this is not to say that there aren’t still plenty of benefits from practising Pranayama without its other limbs. For one thing, it’s so profoundly relaxing. This comes, partly, from the joy of eupnoea or, in other words, almost effortless, optimally-efficient respiration. It’s a sense of fluidity and lubrication that builds as one grows better at coordinating breathing, heartbeat and movement. It’s like having one’s lungs coupled with the sea so that one inhales and exhales all of that – something like in the old Norse myth, when Odin’s drinking horn was connected to the oceans and, thanks to his godly capacity, he managed to swallow enough seawater to cause the tides…

As a set of breathing techniques, Pranayama combines inhalation, breath retention, and exhalation. Breaths are often slow and relaxed but may be forceful and energising as in ‘bellows breath’ or Bhastrika pranayama. But breathing may involve the conscious separate filling of the lower, middle, and upper portions of the lungs, or it may be that the intervals and durations of inhalation and exhalation, or gaps between them, are altered. Breath may enter the body through an open mouth or this may be closed. It may come through alternate nostrils. Inhalation and exhalation may be synchronized with movement or involve deeply exaggerated contractions of the diaphragm, the oblique muscles and the pelvic floor such as in Agnisar pranayama

But, however air enters and leaves the body, all the different techniques offer different benefits. For instance Bhastrika pranayama clears the sinuses and any blockages of the nadis (or energy pathways), while Agnisar pranayama strengthens and tones the digestive system, cures constipation and eases Irritable Bowel Syndrome (so long as it’s not practised on a full stomach – in which case it gives even non-sufferers a nasty bout!).

But, speaking of Odin, I want to concentrate a little on the technique called Ujjayi pranayama, which is ‘conquering’ or ‘ocean breath’. This is diaphragmatic breathing with the mouth closed and glottis slightly engaged so that the passage of air in and out produces a soft rushing sound not unlike the wash of waves along a shoreline. One exhales fully and then engages the perineum, tightening it along with the lowest oblique and rectus abdominus muscles, before relaxing them and filling the lower belly with air first, thus activating the first and second chakras. One continues to inhale so that air rises to the lower rib cage and the third and fourth chakras. Finally one inhales to full capacity as the air moves into the upper chest and throat and awakens the fifth chakra. One pauses then exhales, repeating the steps in reverse whilst drawing up and in the perineum and abdominal muscles again.

This exercise repeated meditatively for a few minutes a day builds core stability and strengthens the digestion. But, besides, the slightly closed airway stimulates the vagus nerve and, through this, the parasympathetic nervous system. Thus, it increases heart rate variability while lowering the heart-rate and blood-pressure and calms palpitations arising from irregular electrical cardio-activity.

What has happened in the course of Ujjayi pranayama is that one has shifted the balance from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. One can shift it back if one wants through a bout of Bhastrika pranayama. Or one can chose a place of equilibrium between the two by incorporating alternate-nostril breathing. And the benefits of all this conscious control are that over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system is gradually calmed and the whole mindful, meditative process settles anxious, fretful minds and bodies and trains us to be proportionately afraid and angry only when the situation calls for these kinds of responses. And it’s not simply that psychologically we are calmer, but inflammatory processes caused by hormonal over-expression are soothed so that we are less prone to chronic illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and so on.

Pranayama isn’t for everyone. Some techniques are taxing physically and any of you with cardiovascular disease and conditions like diverticulitis and colitis shouldn’t undertake it, certainly not without consulting your doctor. But, even if we can’t or chose not to practise Pranayama, we can still appreciate the divine gift of breath which links all respiring organisms in a network of interconnection. Because it’s free and safe to sit quietly alone while fully experiencing the draw of cool air across the warm moist membranes of our noses and mouths. It should be fine too to draw this air down tubes into filling lungs and relaxing bellies. And it costs nothing to add a little of ourselves before contracting our muscles to send now warmed air out into the world with added elements for all the organisms who need us to be part of the living web.

An astrological final note…

I’m at the end of my tribute to pranayama. But I want to place a little of this eastern system in terms of western medical thought via the unlikely conduit of astrology. This is going to be very brief so anyone wanting to talk more about it can contact me.

What one finds in any attempt to understand energy medicine astrologically is that east doesn’t meet west. For instance, the root chakra – which takes in the area of the perineum and genitals – is said to be ruled by Saturn. But, in western astrology, this area is Scorpio’s and ruled by Mars. However, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating and what one finds through the practise of pranayama is that Saturn is a good ruler of the root chakra, while Scorpio does the job in western terms.

This is something best understood experientially when seated in the Lotus Position, or Padma asana. This makes it easiest to appreciate the importance of the strong base offered by the perineum and pelvis which facilitate together responsivity from the abdomen, straightness from the spine, and softness from the sternum: Saturnine integrity arises from the Saturnine root chakra.

Much of my work is in balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems because it is imbalances between these that lie at the root of so much modern lifestyle disease. And what I’ve found is that it’s useful to think of these in terms of Indian Philosophy and the channels of Prana, or nadis, because then one incorporates the idea of flow and blockage whilst thinking holistically about interrelation.

There are said to be 350,000 nadis in the body but three take precedence: these are the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna nadis. The Ida nadi relates to the right side of the brain, and the left side of the body, and terminates at the left nostril. The Pingala nadi relates to the left side of the brain, the right side of the body, and terminates at the right nostril. And the Sushumna nadi connects the root chakra at the base of the spine to the crown chakra at the top of the head and is the energy centre, aorta, and confluence of the arterial system.

In order to integrate these energy channels into astrological thought, one needs to decide which planet rules what. The right side of the brain tends to be ruled by Jupiter, the left by Mercury but the route of the Pingala nadi suggests correlation with the sympathetic nervous system which, in terms of function, shows itself to be Martian. The route of the Ida nadi correlates with the parasympathetic nervous system and that is Venusian in function. Last, the function and route of the Sushumna nadi shows it to be ruled by the sun.

The simple idea is that immunity is Mars-ruled but the immune response is too nuanced for such a simple, blunt overlord. Resilience and balance of the immune system require that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are serenely in balance while simultaneously individually primed to respond in timely and proportionate fashion to demands placed on them through stress, infection and disease. It’s no good either being hypo- or hyperactive since the latter extreme leads to chronic misery and inflammation, allergy, and autoimmune diseases, and the former to lowered immunity and constant threat of invasion. Balance is too tall an order and none of us can expect to achieve it, except fleetingly. Nevertheless, the seeking of balance is to the higher good and, in the astrological chart, in terms of balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems or, similarly, the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna nadis, one works primarily to balance the sun, Mars and Venus, with an eye to Jupiter and Mercury.

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The Complaint Discourse of God and Nature


When I was a very tiny child, I had a dream that has stayed with me. I remember it as a dream about outer-space, so that’s what it must have been. I also remember it as a dream about that great distant god who seems to be found pretty much universally. So it was a dream about that eternally roaring “god-stuff” that DH Lawrence talks about in the Plumed Serpent too. But the divine outer-space I dreamed of was neither distant nor angrily roaring, but peaceful and pulsing. It was no black echoing void either but moderately cloudy and fluid. Now I think about it, it was something like blood plasma, or interstitial, seminal, or amniotic fluid.

So I understood from the start what I’d dreamt about but it was like in Juliana Speer’s Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartbreak:

We come into the world.
We come into the world and there it is.
The sun is there.
The brown of the river leading to the blue and the brown of the
ocean is there.
Salmon and eels are there moving between the brown and the brown
and the blue.
The green of the land is there.
Elders and youngers are there.
Fighting and possibility and love are there.
And we begin to breathe.
We come into the world and there it is.
We come into the world without and we breathe it in.

What I mean is, it was a dream about my matrix but when one is three, one’s physical, spiritual, religious environment is taken for granted and accepted for what it is.

Still, as I got older, the dream began to perplex me. By now, Lawrence’s “god-stuff” was being moulded for me into the Christian very distant inaccessible god who is only reachable through his son, Jesus. I understood this god as synonymous with the stuff of the vast eons of black intergalactic nothingness that I saw in the night sky. In this form he simultaneously scared and concerned me, and I couldn’t bear to think of him existing abstractly in the farthest reaches of nowhere. But I did wonder how I’d got so mixed-up about his nature in my early dream.

In time, I did resolve the dream – to my own satisfaction at least – through another dreamlike experience. I was smoking the entheogen, salvia divinorum, and shortly found myself alone with neither sense of myself in the physical world, nor concept of myself in the mental. I had no physical body and no mental map of where I’d been or was going because there was no past, present or future. I was utterly sensorially-deprived in a place where all interaction was impossible so I didn’t exist except as a universal lonely, deeply anxious awareness. As the terpenoids dissipated, a sense of interaction returned and I realised myself separate from that anxious awareness except that it had attached itself to me as a suffocating blanketing neediness. But slowly this heavy swathing resolved so that it was a chiffony covering of prickling stars which had overlaid me and thereafter I understood that the stars actually were me – 350,000 nadis lighting the flow of life through me, delivering nutrients to cells, running errands, taking communications back and forth…And then I had the idea that life and individuality are the gift of that universal awareness whose generosity arises from a need to ground itself psychically and materially through the experience of another.

Plato talks of this mixing of divinity with materiality in his Timaeus. His Demiurge – or divine artisan – takes material bodies and folds soul into them, turning over and through, as though making flaky-pastry. But materiality was, to Plato, a degraded thing, and it remains fundamentally different to spirit and essentially inferior to it. But there were those then and others since who have questioned this duality. Amongst them is the seventeenth century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. To him god and nature are one and the same thing, and he wrote “Deus sive Natura” – God or nature, both dynamic actions, growing and changing, never static. His philosophy tended towards neutral monism where the universe and all that is in it is essentially pure experience. What decides the nature of this experience – i.e. whether it’s about matter or mind, material or spirit – has to do with the patterns arising from its interrelations with itself and subsequently emerging complexity. Mind and matter, body and soul are one but require each other for comfort.

That ubiquitous distant god of our religious myths has been for so long self-sufficiently unto himseIf. He has always been pure and unchanging; always a construction of unassailable strength. Oftentimes, according to myth, he (always he) created the world, sometimes out of a need to assuage loneliness, but then drew back to exist singly as unpolluted divine light. His angels are regularly jealous of human materiality but not him who’s above all that. He’s always been the giver in his relationship with his creation, never the recipient. It was in this capacity that I was taught to understand why Jesus died for humanity – god offered his son as an act of compassion towards humans in respect of our frailty. It never occurred to me before that Jesus’ suffering might be understood in reverse as well – that the myth is possibly also a kind of complaint discourse or, in other words, a means for Deus sive Natura to re-establish its presence in the world at a critical time of possibly dangerous waning influence and consequent ecological and cultural disintegration.

It’s the thing that when anything is around so long that it becomes part of the furniture, it gets taken for granted. But complaining – as a reminder of every individual’s enmeshment in a caring network – serves as a levelling device and as a public reminder of the continued presence in the world of those who require to be attended to. It’s a strategy much used by Ju/’hoansi elderly who don’t do isolated independence but remain always interdependent. They have an unquestioned right to respect, honour and social status by virtue of their belonging within a community and their complaints are a constant reminder that what they have previously given and done establishes this regardless of current individual productivity which might be zero.

Complaining reminds those around that they have a duty of care, even when they don’t feel caring. And, in drawing attention to suffering, it can inspire compassion, given the right worldview. Complaining is to draw one into another’s pain and makes them co-sufferer who must then – because now they hurt too – seek to alleviate or ameliorate the suffering of the complainant.

Christ’s Passion means a great deal to a great deal of people but, whatever, seems always about us: god is on the cross but human failings are in the spotlight. Perhaps this is because we’ve learned to take ourselves too seriously in such a way as has certainly enabled the rise and rise of human spirituality but has cost our materiality and Deus sive Natura dearly because this game of life we play together is essentially zero-sum.

We’ve got to learn to truly listen to complaints, so it seems to me. It’s the only way to level us. And we have to listen to these from the perspective of the other rather than taking it all inside to ghosts inside hollowed-out machine-bodies where it becomes all about us as isolated individuals. Our bodies are pulsing systems which rely on multiple other systems of varying natures. They are dynamics processing huge amounts of information about relationship within divinely enfolded interior and exterior environments. If we don’t listen to the complaints that arise from our bodies, communities, and natural environments, then gains are illusory. They are transitory in any case no matter what we’d like to think. But we ought to avoid human-apotheosis like the plague because reaching a zenith means we’ve already lost everything to Deus sive Natura in this zero-sum game of life.

A Magical Perspective on Austerity

We humans most certainly belong to nature but our culture is the stuff of symbols. And these symbols, given that they arise out of ever-increasing complexity and myriad different circumstances, generate contradictions that cause us all individual and collective pain. It seems a truism that none of us, either alone or together, can do right for doing wrong.

And yet we don’t, of necessity, need to hurt each other and there are mechanisms factored into our societies which can limit individual and collective harms. These are laws and morals and are generally rooted in ancient religious and magical principles and concepts. However we cannot apply these principles and concepts blindly because such behaviour is to cause harm in the name of justice which is a great sin. No, if we truly care to make our society the most caring and supportive possible, we need to understand these social magico-religious devices properly and learn to use them for collective benefit.

For instance, take the apparently innocuous Wiccan injunction that “An’ it harm none, do what ye will” which is attributed to Aleister Crowley. This aphorism draws on ideas regarding liberty and equality found in Liberalism. This philosophical standpoint was enabled by the humanism of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the consequent rise of individualism and it has come to dominate much of the modern worldview. But contemporary liberalist seeking for individual freedom draws from the work of the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith. He believed that individual selfishness is capable of leading to unintended social benefits. Thus, he saw a teleological quasi-religious ‘invisible hand’ at work in capitalist free markets and came to the conclusion that trade of whatever sort is automatically capable of channelling self-interest toward socially desirable ends.

The neoliberal project at work today builds on this by removing the manifest steadying hand of legislation and government so that the market may have its head. The idea is that any market overseen by a disinterested government is synonymous with a level playing field: i.e. so long as we all get out there and play, we all have an equal chance of scoring a goal. But this is mere wishful thinking and Crowley was as wrong as Adam Smith in that fallacious belief that doing “what ye will” benefits us all. In fact, it inevitably leads to harm. This is because neoliberal policies favour large companies over small ones while driving out all the Davids in favour of a handful of Goliaths. These policies lead to the disintegration of communities and have catastrophic results for the poor and for social ecology. In fact they lead to a depleted environment and austerity as we are currently experiencing it.

Nevertheless, it’s worth returning to that earlier quoted Wiccan Rede in order to examine its roots. It arises out of the ancient world as the Latin phrase, Primum non nocere. This is the principle of non-maleficence meaning, “First, do no harm” and is found in self-similar form in the Hippocratic Oath where it says “The physician must … have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm“.

Thus, there is something in that Wiccan Rede that has potential as a means to avoid doing harm but which damages when it’s taken to its neoliberal conclusion. It is my view that this harm/benefit dichotomy lies in the way the principle is administered as medicinal sympathetic magic.

Last week, I talked about three things: First, I discussed the idea that intermittent fasting can being healing and re-establish fertility when undertaken when one is in good health. Second, I talked about how, when fasting is undertaken in sympathy with concurrent events in the environment, it can bring one into accord with one’s context in such a way that is magically, religiously and socially powerful. Last, I talked about how, nevertheless, certain groups are necessarily excluded from a communal religious fast because their circumstances make them especially vulnerable to possible ill-effects or because they are so poor and hungry that their lives are one long fast anyway. What this means is that their inclusion in the fast is of no true benefit to them or anyone else. Austerity is similar to the communal religious fast because, although it doesn’t uniformly involve reduced food intake, nonetheless, it is a time of psychical collective restriction.

But I want to think about these prohibitions to fasting in terms of the use of austerity as the means to re-establish growth and prosperity after the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8. And I’m taking a magico-religious perspective. In other words, I’m viewing the use of austerity as sympathetic magic used to bring about the return of fertility and productivity. Two factors ensure that this is a legitimate rather than whimsical exercise. First, since the markets are implicated through the idea that austerity stimulates the economy whilst reducing the deficit through payroll tax, we must include that religious invisible hand because it is this, so we believe, that oversees our markets. Second, David Cameron invoked a collective spirit – a godlike egregore if you will – when he said that “we’re all in this together…” after government assumed the private debts of the banks following their threatened collapse.

Regardless of the wrongs that precipitated that collapse, Cameron was right in identifying a way to communal healing through common struggle. Such a thing is, actually, the definition of compassion. This word comes from the Late Latin compassionem which combines the concept of communal pity with the idea of suffering and is a religiously-loaded loan-translation of the Greek sympatheia. This, meanwhile, is the root for our “sympathy” which refers to the affinity between things. So it was this sense of kinship that Cameron was keen to call up. And the truth is he was onto something powerful because sympathetic magic is undoubtedly extremely potent. The fact is religious fasting – and its self-similar forms such as austerity – have long been used as joint religious observance in order to bind communities socially and religiously whilst restoring the favour of the gods and the fertility of the land.

BUT – and this is a big but – those prohibitions to fasting I talked about require strict observance because, first of all, imperatively, this is about sympathetic magic. In other words, it is not good enough for politicians to talk about being in it together – the suffering must be joined in fact otherwise the magic takes on an antipathetic, extinguishing quality which is well-known in herbalism. This quality is reasonable with regard to the treatment of disease but malign and potentially genocidal, human to human. Second, vitally, those who are weakened or poor are excluded from the fast, not least because they are in no position to sustain additional privation. But also they are excluded because the aim of a fast and, by association, austerity, is to return the privileged to a state of appreciation for their struggling, overburdened, exhausted environment not vice versa. It is to give that a chance of recovery by moderating excessive withdrawals from it whilst encouraging the privileged to remember a sense of kinship with the environment and the poor and struggling.

Sometimes a smokescreen is thrown up by those wishing to protect the privileged instead of the underprivileged. For instance, George Osborne has protected bankers, the rich and the profitable all through austerity whilst making the argument that, if he doesn’t, there will be no wealth available to trickle down to the masses. There has also been the argument that it would be unfair to protect unprofitable businesses along with the poor and underprivileged but that these must share the burdens of austerity. The case is also made that a welfare system is a luxury for easier times but that, just now, this must be dismantled in order to cut costs. But all this is specious and accepted, only, because the arguments chime with neoliberal individualism whilst protecting and justifying the interests of the relatively powerful.

I’ve talked before of the idea of sorcery according to the Ju/’hoansi which is where healers, or n/um k”ausi, appropriate excess n/um (life force, or medicine) to themselves instead of sharing it communally. Similarly Friedrich Nietzsche talks of two senses of the will to power: On one hand, this is the basic creative instinct in all living things to live and procreate.(1) On the other, it is a subversion of this primal self-determining creativity leading to personal ambition and striving to exceed all others. This latter sense is what Ju/’hoansi would call sorcery and it is in this sense that the Nazis appropriated it, thus enabling their atrocities. Moreover, in placing the burdens of austerity on the weakest in society whilst protecting those on higher societal rungs, our UK tory government is also guilty of subverting the will to power in such a way as to commit magical wrong-doing.

Let’s think about this in terms of David Cameron’s headline seeking for a Big Society which was his effort to “empower communities”. In this, as in his claim that we are all in it together, he sought to concentrate us all on resurrecting the Blitz Spirit which was the collective thoughtform – or Egregore – that, it is argued, brought the UK through WW2. But things were different then – most importantly, society was truly in it together insofar as the country was united against a common enemy. But this time it is not so. As we all know, we are now divided against ourselves through the demands of neoliberalism and the facts of ever-increasing inequality, the demonising of the unemployed, the low-paid and welfare claimants, and our uncompromising stance against immigration. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Cameron failed to raise a spirit. What it means is that his government’s sloppy, unthinking or wicked conjuring, along with our collective acquiescence, have raised a malevolent and dangerous phantom.

If it offends, this ‘phantom’ doesn’t need to be thought of in metaphysical godlike terms. It could just as well be understood in terms of the meme or of corporate identity. Nevertheless, it is ‘religious’ insofar as it arises out of collective faith that an idea exists in the symbolic realm. Moreover, the phantom does have a life of its own although, in this, it relies on its symbiotic relationship with its group.

The idea of the Egregore is a magical concept but, whilst likely having its ultimate root in the organisation of such small integrated societies as the Ju/’hoansi, it is also found in the apocrypha – some of which is in the Bible – as the holy Watchers. These malevolent, fallen angels are giants who loot the earth and endanger humanity. They do this because they do not care for us, but merely use us for their own ends. Either that or they are unaware of us and, thus, able to stamp all over us blindly. Having witnessed the deaths and suicides of the sick and the unemployed who are sanctioned and left to starve for the most arbitrary reasons; having seen tax credits removed from those running unprofitable small businesses; having seen Iain Duncan Smith impose bedroom tax and benefit caps; having seen George Osborne sulk when he was refused carte blanche to remove tax credits from even more of the low-waged; and having seen child-poverty increase when it should be falling, it would seem that the egregore conjured by Cameron’s austerity is very like one of those evil Biblical Watchers.

If austerity was ever necessary – and there are sound economic reasons to say it wasn’t – it is so desperately sad and beyond tragic that the rules of religious fasting and sympathetic magic were not interpreted socially and then followed. It could have been so different if we’d truly been in it together: Cameron would have got his big society over which a kindly god – something like the spirit overseeing the Roman Saturnalia – presided. But he and his government released a wicked, destructive, greedy, self-gratifying genie from that cheap but glittery neoliberal bottle and it’s hard to see how it will ever be induced to return from whence it came.

References:

Nietzsche. 1887. The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Vintage Books, 1974, §127

How to heal a Metabolic Rift with Sympathetic Magic

Some time ago I began to observe my monthly rhythm ritually. Around about day 21 of my menstrual cycle with, coincidentally, the moon entering its last quarter, I’d begin a fast which would last for five full days and nights. This wasn’t a ritual when I began. It was a measure to gain control over the few days before the onset of my period which were beset by miserable sick hormonal migraines which seemed to be triggered by food. I figured that, while I couldn’t do much about my falling levels of progesterone, I could address food triggers by cutting them out, so I did. This wasn’t a full fast and has never become one. I allow myself free water and herb teas and a few hundred calories of food. But this coupling of the lunar cycle with my monthly rhythm using food as the binding agent became a deeply meaningful ritual.
Its ritualization happened over time with the deepening of my experience of fasting. At first, it was just about getting through those days as cheerfully as possible. But, as my migraines levelled off, so the timing and effects of my fast allowed my appreciation of my menstrual cycle to develop. I stopped thinking of it as a nuisance and understood it at last as a clear and potent source of sympathetic magic. I realised that its power is in the discourse between me, the moon and the world around me. As my endothelium swells and shrinks, so the moon, the tides, and the plant world swell and shrink in harmony. In synchrony, the moon and I wax, my food intake increases, the oceans pull away from the earth, the tides fall and fruit and leaves grow plump. With our joint waning, my food consumption drops, tides and seas rise and the fluids in the plants and trees draw back into heartwood and roots. Our mirroring is dialogue about integration, fertility and health.
Once it seemed quaintly superstitious to me that herbalists should make a big deal of collecting certain things at the new moon and others with the full. But the coincidence of Luna’s phases, my menstrual cycle and the coincident qualities of medicinal herbs brought me to realise the concrete truth of the belief. It is fact that when I’m eating normally and the moon is swelling, I can gather the most efficacious tonic herbs. It is also a propitious time to pay attention to restoring my levels of trace dietary elements and phytonutrients. When I’m fasting, it’s timely to seek out detoxifying and loosening herbs; it’s appropriate to allow stores in my body to run down; it will be to my advantage if I facilitate the death of any struggling cells through starvation-induced apoptosis.
I’ve spoken before about the deadening effect of fat and carbohydrate dependency on divination. I knew about this before I started fasting but I needed to experience sustained hunger to understand it at a visceral level. In the first days of my fast I was just hungrier than usual. But, as days passed, increasing hunger set up a kind of inner resonance which allowed me to recognise particular deficiencies or underlying health issues. And it showed me that, if I was allowing myself only a fraction of what I normally eat, I’d better choose wisely. And it restored my childhood sensitivity to taste which I had wrongly thought all gone, whereas easy access to food had simply allowed me to become a bored and lazy taster. I’d learned to take food for granted, view it as simple fuel, and dismiss its subtlety of expression. So I reflected (and still reflect) on the complexities of my relationship with food; how I love to eat; how I love to fast and thereby return to the wonderful empty clarity and meditative stillness which fasting facilitates; how food must sometimes become taboo to me if I am to appreciate it fully.
Through fasting, I discovered the joy of discipline too. In this, I’m not talking about a punishing, hairshirt-type of discipline in which there is no possibility of joy. I’m talking of the pleasure of reining-in excess. If fasting were a substance or a taste, it would be an astringent one because it tightens, binds and shrinks at all levels of experience. It dries bodily tissues, reduces energy expenditure (thus reducing the number of calories needed), improves skin and all the other cutaneous coverings of our bodies and settles reactive gut issues. It binds the mind so that it is not busily compulsive. It shrinks angers and dreams to manageable size. And in so doing, it brought me to the realisation that my choice to fast demonstrates my own privilege. Those who are truly hungry don’t fast like me because their lives are already lived at base level and their fast is constant. And, in just this way, it brought me to the realisation that ambition is a privilege that some people may not share because it is necessarily fuelled by some kind of excess.
All this is just me discovering for myself what humans have always known. The connections between divination and fasting and between fasting and compassionate religious observance was made long, long ago and seems to be universal. Hunter-gatherer communities fast in preparation for hunting and before entering communication with plants and animals. Christians traditionally fast in preparation to receive the Eucharist. Fasting, it seems, cleanses and primes the individual and the collective in preparation for the receipt of divine power while bringing us all a little closer.
But I have wondered how we humans discovered the connection between food abstinence, religion and divine imminence. I held the notion for some time that fasting is a harkening back to the pre-agricultural era when our ancestors were free-roaming hunter-gatherers who, by virtue of the fact that they regularly suffered famine, had learned to make the best of such times by surrounding starvation with ritual. And I figured that the rhythm of feast and famine later became inculturated into our agricultural society via that soundbox we know as religion. But this neat explanation is badly flawed, not least because current research indicates that famine featured less in pre-agricultural societies than post-agricultural societies. It is also undermined by the fact that we humans do not naturally go through extended periods of starvation in the untroubled fashion of hibernating animals. In fact, while short-term and intermittent fasting benefit us, long-term fasting really doesn’t. We lose condition, our energy and motivation dives and our immune systems crash.
So perhaps an explanation for our discovery of the connection of fasting with good health, religion and divination might be found in the confluence of the example of the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari and the concept of hormesis.
The lifestyle of the Ju/’hoansi, until the last few decades, was fully hunter-gathering and their diet relied on what was seasonally available. Most of the year there was enough for a community within a defined radius around camps. However, through the cool, dry Kalaharian winter, plant food becomes increasingly scarce and it became ever more necessary to widen foraging trips beyond normal bounds. At the same time, it was also necessary to expand their definition of edible plants to include those that taste bad, lack nutrition, or have unwanted effects.(1)
Meanwhile, hormesis is a kind of response. In other words, when an organism comes into contact with a small amount of a stressor (like sustained hunger) or a low dose of a toxin (like curcumin) cellular replication is suspended while hormetic repair mechanisms are activated. During such times of stress, reactive oxygen species (ROS) increases dramatically and this, since ROS is highly reactive, is damaging to DNA. ROS can be mopped up by antioxidants but, without these, or where ROS levels are manageable, the cellular mitochondria consume ROS oxygen in an endogenous response which culminates in the increased resilience of cells, their umbrella organisms and joint defence capacity against exogenous radicals – such as environmental toxins.
Placing this in terms of the privations inherent in the forager’s experience of a Kalahari winter, the hormetic response is triggered by the stresses of having to travel further for food and eat what is higher than usual in mildly toxic anutrients and limited in antioxidants. The Ju/’hoansi live in egalitarian communities where food is shared, which means that so is hunger. Moreover, just as the menstrual cycle is reflected by the environment, so is Ju/’hoansi hunger in the land’s depressed fertility. People and environment bond through shared experience and grow resilient together through the binding effect of reduced growth and lowered calorific needs. Thus, what little there is goes a little further. Kalahari winter food is neither fun nor particularly nutritious but it has its benefits.
That will do for now, except for a quick summary. Food is a mediator between us and the environment. It flows as the environment into us; it flows as us out into the environment and thus we establish a rhythmic metabolic bond which is at the root of sympathetic magic. Through this magical binding, it is possible to couple our rhythms and create harmony. Once we synchronise, we begin to appreciate that we all – humans and environment – move along a fertility continuum which is to be respected for our mutual benefit. Fasting is one way of recognising and respecting the endless waxing and waning of productivity, whilst also building up resilience and health in our bodies, our communities and our environment. Conversely, if instead we cause a metabolic rift between our bodies, our communities, and our environments by expecting a ceaseless flow of plenty, or by placing unfair and unacceptable burdens on its most vulnerable elements, we place our bodies, communities and environments under unsustainable pressures.
N.B. Fasting is not, and never has been, for everyone. Where it is undertaken as religious observance, certain groups are always exempt because it may cause them harm. These include prepubescent children, women who are menstruating, pregnant, have recently given birth, and/or are nursing, the elderly, and the sick and those who are suffering mental ill-health. I would like to add to this list those suffering hyperlipidaemia (high blood lipid levels) because fasting may aggravate the formation of arteriosclerosis in their case.
Those with eating disorders may potentially benefit from intermittent fasting in a couple of ways. First, over time its disciplinary effect tends to temper excessive starvation and binging. Second, it facilitates new respect for food which tends to be lost when one reduces this to calories whilst also voluntarily binging and purging. HOWEVER, no fast should be undertaken when one is weak, and nor should it be considered by eating disorder sufferers without medical advice and support.
Many thanks to Chris Knight, author of Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture, who has been so generous to me with his time, and inspirational with his work.

References:

Lee, Richard B. 2013 (1984). The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, 4th Ed.. Belmont: Wadsworth. p. 48