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Experience – I

In occult practice (as with much else), it’s relatively easy to have an experience which appears to confirm one’s theories, whether they be implicit or explicit. Some people (mostly historical reconstructionists) have come up with the term “Unverified Personal Gnosis” in order to try an account for – or create a demarcation between what’s accepted as “canonical” within a particular community of practitioners and individual experiences which seem to veer away from what’s “acceptable” – either amongst a group or in terms of historical sources. There are obvious problems with this kind of demarcation. I recall a friend of mine recounting what happened when she mentioned on an online forum that she’d “encountered” in a dream, a female form of Ganesa – she was quickly rounded on and emphatically informed that there wasn’t a female form of Ganesa, and therefore she’d had an “UPG” – apparently none of the self-styled “experts” on that particular forum were aware that there is a female form of Ganesa – she’s just not very well known.

I don’t find this notion of UPG is very useful, personally, although it seems to me to relate to wider issues around how “authenticity” is established amongst magical practitioners. It seems to me that implicit in making this distinction between “theory” and “experience” is that “theory” (i.e. “what other people think”) is seen as “external” to us and “experience” (“something that I have”) is “internal”. There’s often a kind of unspoken agreement present – particularly on online forums – that it’s okay to criticise theories – and people who seem to be arguing from a theory-only standpoint, but that you can’t challenge someone who says “Well, I’ve experienced x – you haven’t!” This can quickly become a form of online bullying when its used to shut people up or dismiss them.

This was pretty much the position Lobsang Rampa took up in regard to his detractors – in particular the group of Tibetanologists who worked hard to “prove” he was a fake – that he was not writing (as his first book was presented) an autobiographical account of the life of a Tibetan Lama, but was in fact an Englishman who’d never left the UK. He maintained all along that he’d experienced what he was writing about, and that since no one else had experienced what he had, no one was really able to challenge the veracity of this, although in his later works, he does say that if readers want to take what he’s saying as fiction, he doesn’t care, as they are probably not “evolved” enough to appreciate the truth in his writings. The problem with this kind of stance is that experience – in particular – “occult” experience is privileged as something that is direct, unmediated and not subject to cross-examination – it’s an experience of reality “as it is”, and the idea that experience is shaped within and through language, cultural and institutional ideologies is never raised. This kind of occult experience is often essentialised and universalised – hence the familiar refrain of “my interpretation is the correct one” – the claim to be an authority based on the facticity of one’s magical experience.

I’d argue for a reflective, critical approach to magical experience. Gadamer, just before his death, was asked about his concept of experience – and he replied to the effect that being experienced allows one to be open to further new experiences – it’s not about knowing something and becoming rigid in that knowledge, but having the effect of freeing onself for new experiences. It’s a salient point, particularly if one’s interested in the way occultists present experience as a marker of authority. There’s an assumption that experience = knowledgeable – which I don’t think is necessarily the case.