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No more astral?

I’ve been banging on to various friends for a few years now about why I no longer set much store in the notion of the astral plane(s), but until recently, I hadn’t actually written anything substantive – until some unsuspecting correspondent got the full blast of my unbelief (memo: I must stop answering correspondence before 7am). The following was written as a way of explaining my reasoning…

For years I more-or-less accepted the reality of the “astral plane” (i.e. I just accepted what I’d read in books and heard other people talk about), and had many experiences that seemed to verify its existence and so confirmed my belief in it. That’s not hard to do in occultism. But increasingly, I began to view the astral not as an ontological reality but as a cultural artefact – something which reflects and reinforces a particular cultural discourse about mind/body, experience and so forth. Back in the mid-1990s, I was a member of a large magical organisation which had local groups scattered across Europe and North America. A group of people in the UK announced they were going to have a joint meeting on “the astral” with another group in Germany. The allocated date came and went, and sure enough, the UK peeps came back with thrilling tales about everything they’d experienced and done with their German counterparts (actually not that exciting). Not long after I called one of the German members and mentioned that I’d heard that their astral meeting with the Brits was a big success. Silence on the phone. “Shit, we completely forgot!” she said, and we both had a good laugh. And this, for me, kind of illustrates the problematic nature of the astral plane as it’s popularly thought of. The trouble is, it’s way too easy to convince yourself that you’ve had a “valid” experience on the astral plane – and it tends to get represented as the type of experience that’s not open to question or critique. And its often used to make uncontestable claims of power or authority as in “i met Crowley on the astral plane and he says that I am now his magical son” – which is a very common type of assertion. You can’t question that kind of statement because to do so is to call the magical competancy of the person who’s making it into question. If you hang out with other magicians long enough, you’ll hear a great deal of this kind of talk – and after 30-odd years it gets kind of tedious.

A case in point is Charles Webster Leadbeater, author of The Astral Plane: Its Scenery, Inhabitants and Phenomena (written in 1895). Leadbeater was reckoned by some of his fellow Theosophists as the most advanced adept of his age. He was renown for reporting on the “astral initiation” experiences of fellow Theosophists – often telling them what they’d experienced on the astral plane when they’d been asleep – things they didn’t recall themselves, most of the time – which needless to say, gave him a great deal of power amongst the people who uncritically accepted what he said to them. It was only later that it came out that some of the people who’d had Leadbeater report on their night-time astral adventures had been so excited that they’d been unable to sleep at all. Many people came, (some albeit unwillingly) that he’d been making it up to varying degrees (the debate over this is still rumbling on in Theosophical circles).

As I said earlier, “astral encounters” are often framed as a “real” experience that is not open to question or dissection – it’s one of a class of occult-related experience which has a high “evidential status” – so I can say, for example, that I experienced this, so you have to take my experience at face value – it’s immediate and authentic, and at the same time, personal and subjective – natural, even – a “direct” unmediated perception of reality” as it is. But I don’t think its that simple. For a start, I don’t believe unmediated experiences are possible (at least not to that extent). We always bring something to an experience, and thereby shape it to a degree – we don’t just passively experience – we interpret and structure experience, drawing on knowledge and cultural assumptions, often without realising this. You can see this quite clearly going on in some occult accounts of gender. People talk about experiencing Male and Female “energies” as though these things are naturalistic givens, rather than something which emerges out of a tangled web of historical/cultural assumptions relating to the facticity of the belief that there are only two gender categories and that these are fixed and immutable.

I may say, for example, that I had an astral enounter with Pan last night and if another person accepts the “reality” of such experiences, the very fact that I am making this assertion will confirm their own belief in the possibility of such encounters. If they don’t, they’re unlikely to be interested. But what if I go on to say that I “topped” Pan? Some occultists I have met would question the validity of this statement because they believe that Pan only takes the inserter role in ‘astral sex’ (not kidding, someone actually stated this to me as unarguable fact!) and might well question the validity my experience – thereby calling into question my competance as a magician and starting off a row of monumental proportions. Let’s say I went even further and said that Pan had the appearance not of the Arcadian pastoral god of the fields, but was highly glammed up, with high heels instead of hooves. Again, I’d submit that this would be harder for other people to accept, because it is stretching the boundaries of what many people think is appropriate (i.e. hooves = good, high heels = bad). If I finally admitted that it wasn’t Pan after all, but RuPaul wearing falsie horns and a fake beard, I think I’d be getting some very odd responses and being dismissed as a time-waster and not a “serious” occultist, although I think most of my queer friends would find it highly amusing.

But do other people’s opinions necessarily matter? Only if you’re interested in discussing whatever it is you’re up to with other people, but even if you’re not, it’s highly likely that other people’s perceptions of what constitutes a valid astral experience are going to influence you to varying degrees.

Then there’s the question of agency. I was talking to an acquaintence some time ago, who led, what he said was a very active life on the astral plane – continually encountering all manner of entities who would reveal to him hidden knowledge and so forth (none of which seemed to be particularly stunning, from what he told me). I asked him if they ever said to him, “not now I’m busy, push off” and he looked kind of surprised – like he’d never even thought that this might happen to him. It sounded like all these inner-plane adepts were just sitting around waiting for him to turn up so they could fill his head with wisdom and had nothing else to do otherwise.

Another issue (for me at least) is that the astral plane as it’s conceived by various authorities tends to get given the status of a “universal” – that its the same everywhere for everyone – in the same way that some people who believe in the “collective unconscious” tend to assume that its contents are similar regardless of culture – and that anything that sounds like it might be similar – such as the various “worlds” found in Buddhist writings, gets rolled into the universal concept of the astral world without anyone stopping to think that there might be differences.

But, you might say, although I acknowledge that people make shit up about their astral experiences for various reasons, surely that doesn’t make the entire concept of the astral invalid? Perhaps not – but I’d argue that it requires taking a long and hard look at how one conceives of it. My conclusion is that for me its not a particularly useful concept any more.

One comment

  1. ron
    Posted June 19th 2010 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    Interesting read. I think some astral travellers would do well by referencing Crowley’s Liber O…
    “In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of
    Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many
    other things that may or may not exist.
    It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain
    things, certain results will follow; students are earnestly warned
    against attributing objective reality or philosophical validity to
    any of them.”
    And he further states that the usefulness of these experiences lies in a general expanding of the horizons of the mind and also in an improvement of the control of the mind. But I’m sure different people have different motivations.
    An interesting book that explores one magicians astral experiences is The Lucifer Diaries by Roger Williamson.