Monday, 30 May 2011

A Bad Witch's Blog - London events

For anyone living in London or visiting on a regular basis, I'd like to recommend the following site: A Bad Witch's blog. She posts on a weekly basis the events and talks going on in London.

I've signed up to the following talks at Treadwells next month:
  • 14 June 11 (Tuesday)
    Hermes Trismegistus: Fall and Rise of a Magical Figure
    by Gary Lachman 
  • 23 June 11 (Thursday)
    Demons and Angels: The Jewish Traditions
    by James LaForest 

Sunday, 29 May 2011

How Project Management and Shamanism are similar

I reached for my mobile and flipped it to silent mode before I was even aware of the phone in my hand or that I was awake. Just then a pale luminous light projected from the phone displaying a long string of numbers that hinted at some far off corner in the US.

“Hallo,” the man on the other end of the phone did not bother to pause for breath. “Listen Shimon, I need to talk to you about this ting at work that you do... What do you call it? Oh yah, Project Management. You see I figured it out... what you do is like being a Shaman!”

There was a long pause. I slipped out of bed and went downstairs.

“Hang on a second Rabbi,” I whispered as I poured a glass of milk, shut the fridge and sat down on the sofa.

“You recognize my voice, of course no? It's Rabbi Bar-zel Arieh Tzion” he sounded rather excited and eager to share his latest epiphany. “Now ask me why Project Managers are like Shamans!”

“I'd really rather not,” it was difficult to keep the tiredness out of my voice and I barely stifled a yawn. “Can't you just email it to email it to me and I'll read it later this week?”

“Now, now Shimon, calm down.” He cleared his throat and started reading from what sounded like a list. “First of all there is becoming a shaman, did you set out to become a Project Manager?”

“No, I fell in to it but that is rather common in my industry.”

“Acha! You see it is like a calling, the Path find you rather than the other way around.” I could hear the rustle of beard against receiver. “Sure some people want to become shamans but like Project Managers for many people project management was not their chosen path.”

“OK,” I decided to play along for a bit to see how many holes I poke in his theory. “What about the initiation ceremonies of a shaman? The disintegration and reintegration experiences? I don't have any memories of being eaten alive, spat out and regrown to gain power over spirits.”

“Really?” The Rabbi sounded piqued. “Have you forgotten your first few projects? That feeling of going for a review, having your presentation taken to pieces and the reviewers metaphorically ripping it to shreds?”

“Uh,” vague and uncomfortable memories of my first project started drifting back. “Perhaps Rabbi, but that was metaphorical.”

“And you think that a shaman's initiation is all about the physical?” He laughed and beat me to my next question. “So now I bet you're thinking that Shamans go on otherworldly journeys and Project Managers do not, yah?”

“Correct.” I drained my glass of milk and tried to work out how the Rabbi knew so much about my Project Management experiences.

“Well,” he said with such smugness that I would have punched him had he been standing over me. “How do you think that it looks to the designers that you work with? You go for strange gatherings with people from other departments which to your team are considered like hostile tribes. Then when you visit colleagues and clients at other sites you may as well be going on a otherworldly journey to some places that exists only in legend and folk-tale.”

“I hardly think that journeys to other departments and customer sites in any way resemble an otherworldly journey that a shaman might experience.” My tone must have become rather accusatory and he softened his in turn.

“Shimon, listen it's just a theory. Please bear with me for just a bit longer. Project Managers do many things in a corporation that a shaman does in a tribe, you just need to look at it in a different way. Shamans heal and exorcise illness, Project Managers run projects to fix problems. Shamans divine the future through things like casting bones and Project Managers try see the future through things like project plans and GANTT charts. Shamans escort the spirits of those who have passed on to the afterlife and Project Managers run change projects helping the organization move from one way of life to the next.” He stroked his beard and took a sip. Anticipating my desire to speak he said: “Now ask me your question.”

“Very well,” I responded saving my best argument to last. “What about contacting spirits? And if you think that speaking to upper management is in any way like a shaman contacting spirits for guidance then I don't buy that argument. Upper management are flesh and blood just like the rest of us even if they think that they are somehow different.”

“You don't believe that Project Managers speak to spirits?” He sounded almost shocked, except for his soft mocking laughter.

“No,” I replied firmly, switched off the phone and threw it on the floor.

“So who do you think that you are talking to now Shimon?” his voice carried quietly from across the darkened room. I sat frozen in terror for several minutes before there was sufficient circulation in my arm to switch on the light. The room was empty and on the floor my phone was flashing with the message '1 missed call'.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Origin of Lilith legends

A pagan friend recently asked me about the name Lilith and what role she plays in Jewish legend and folk-lore.

Fortunately I gave her a copy of Rabbi Dennis' "Encyclopaedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism" for her birthday at the start of the year - so I did not have to summarise the entry and email her the highlights.

Even better, Rabbi Dennis' blog has the entry for Lilith posted online here: "Lilith - semen demon or feminist icon?".

Anyway, the two extracts from Rabbi Denni's post and EJMMM entry that I would like to draw attention to are (highlighting in bold by me):
"The use of “Lilith” as the proper name of a specific demonic personality first appears in the Midrash. The most famous legend of Lilith is the one first appearing in the Medieval satirical text Aleph-bet ben Sira. In that document, Lilith is identified as the first woman God created along with Adam. The case for their having been two women in the Garden of Eden is based on the differing accounts of the creation of woman (Gen. 1:27 vs. Gen. 2:19-23)."
"It should be pointed out, however, that modern claims by Raphael Patai, Robert Graves, and others that Lilith was an early Hebrew goddess later censored out of the tradition by editors of the Scriptures has no foundation whatsoever in any literature we have from before the 10th Century CE. This claim appears to depend entirely on appealing to the Ben Sira narrative, but this story is sui generis, and there is no precedent for any tradition of Lilith as either as “Wife of Adam” or “Wife of YHWH” prior to the Middle Ages."
So whilst it is a fascinating legend and the amulets to ward her off from newborns are still in use by many families, the textual basis for some of the recent interpretations of the legend should be taken in to careful considered.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Through the Seven Heavens in Academia

Last Friday 20th May 2011 was the date that I finally finished my reading project entitled: “Understanding the Merkavah User Manual in 2000 pages or less”.

It's been an amazing learning experience and in all honesty will require several months of digestion to come up with a coherent understanding of how this affects my world-view and crystallizing the new knowledge.

Part way through the project I came to the realization that the academics themselves are each struggling with how to interpret and understand these Hechalot (Palace) and Merkavah (Chariot) texts. Not quite as the blind men trying to identify what an elephant is, but with a variety if views on such things as whether the focus was on celestial ascent or angelic adjuration.

But rather than blow my own trumpet on having completed this reading project I would like to dedicate it instead to the academics who had the courage and tenacity to write these amazing books. Reading the reviews by Lesses and Davila of current state of research by other authors brought home how small this field is.

In any case, if you're looking for inspiration and are about to set out on a very challenging project, here are a couple of videos and images to inspire.

In closing, do I consider this project a success? Yes, it completed in time, full scope and cost. It's also helped to improve my understanding of its influence on later trends in Jewish mysticism as well as its influence on the Jewish prayer book.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Homeostasis the demon of inertia or Why new rituals fall by the wayside

"Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment"
By George Leonard

The Scribbler pointed me in the direction of the "Mastery" book in this post not too long ago and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. Rather than do an in-depth review which I’m not very good at, I’d like instead to share with you an important lesson in the book – namely the lesson of how Homeostasis affects the path to mastery.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia definition of Homeostasis. In a nutshell what it means is that a system will try to keep itself operating within certain parameters even if they are not always good parameters to operate within.

For example, here is a simple thermometer system that monitors the temperature, if it’s too low it switches on the heating and waits for a period of time. It then checks the temperature again and if it is still too low it keeps the heater on and if not, it switches the heater off. In both cases it waits for a period of time.

There’s plenty of literature on the web about homeostasis and I encourage you to read up on it. In particular please read section “6 Psychological” on the Wikipedia entry.

Homeostasis can also be applied to the “work in progress” that you do as a practitioner on a regular basis. Whether it is meditation, managing a TO DO list, ritual or ceremonies, you’re currently in pattern of behavior and changing that will meet with some resistance from homeostasis. Here is the same thermometer diagram with temperature replaced with ritual.

As you can see introducing a new ritual in to your regular practice is something that either gains traction by becoming part of your business as usual; or it gets dropped. You may experience feelings of remorse, anger, relief or a range of emotions when you do not manage to integrate something new in to your business as usual.

Comfort Zone and Being Forearmed

The main thing to keep in mind though is that homeostasis is a good indicator of the boundaries of our comfort zone. By pushing yourself that little bit further, you get a feel for the likely sources of resistance and can plan to win them over or neutralize them.

Understanding the effects that homeostasis has will not help you overcome them directly, but without this understanding it is harder to work out what are the blockers to achieving your goal. Forewarned is forearmed.

Monday, 16 May 2011

This is Not a Review: "Low Magick" by Lon Milo Duquette

This is not a review of Lon Milo DuQuette’s “Low Magick: It's All In Your Head ... You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is”, as I’m not very good at reviews. So instead this blog post is about some of the things that I learned from reading this book.
  1. Telling a story is a great way to teach
  2. There’s not enough humour in the interested-in-the-occult community
  3. Big G and definition of monotheism

1. Telling a story is a great way to teach
The idea that stories are a great vehicle for teaching is not rocket science. However, in practice I’ve found that the books which I’ve read or lectures that I have listened to which employ this technique have mixed results.

Some work really well and other times it does not quite hit the mark. One powerful technique that I’ve come across frequently is to tell a story that stirs the emotions. Once the passions are awakened and the mind is engaged to follow this up with focus on intellectual and rational side of the mind. That way of engaging both sides can leave a lasting message that resonates with the listeners.

Anyway, back to the main point of this lesson – although I differ in my worldview with Lon Milo he none the less has an easy to read style and it’s quite funny (in my opinion). Which made reading this book very enjoyable and since it’s told in story format - I shall remember it for longer.

2. There’s not enough humour in the interested-in-the-occult community
This is my general perception of my limited interaction with the world of esoteric studies and practice. It’s likely that I’ve not done enough research in this area, so if you know of more examples of people combining humour with teaching subjects related to magic and mysticism then I’d love to hear about them – please leave a comment below.

3. Big G and definition of monotheism
The one thing that I disagreed strongly with was when the author was talking about the Big G (God) and monotheistic religions. I can only comment on this from a Jewish perspective but it seemed to me that the author was making a distinction between Jews who believed that God is a guy with a big beard who sits on a cloud and those who had what he called an understanding of esoteric Judaism.

To me this distinction is one of education. The former is a child-like view (that some adults still have) and the latter is one of someone who has studied the inner meaning of the Torah (Written Law) and Talmud (Oral Law). This is a spectrum of understanding and is influenced by how much a person has studied and meditated on these concepts.

In Summary
Anyway, in summary the book was entertaining due to the humour it contained and educational in its use of stories. Would I recommend it? Yes, it was a fun read. Did it change my attitude or understanding of magic? To a small degree.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Meditation Breakdown Structure

Taking a deeper look at meditation

When I first started looking at meditation several years ago I was surprised to find that it was not just about sitting still and trying to think of nothing. This it turns out is quite an advanced meditative technique and there are a number of different ways to meditate.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “Jewish Meditation” is an excellent book on meditation and the first book that I recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about Jewish meditation or meditation in general. His other books are equally excellent, but without reading this one first it is in my opinion difficult to put his other writing to practical use.

Based on the information that he provides in Chapter 3 on Techniques, here is a breakdown structure of the different types of meditative techniques that I have created based on my understanding of this chapter in the book:

Internal – the stimulus comes from inside the practitioner
External – the stimulus comes from outside the practitioner
Visual sight is the focus of the meditation
Auditory sound is the focus of meditation
Structured – a set of instructions or script is followed during the meditation
Unstructured no instructions or scripts are used during the meditation

There are other focuses of meditation than visual and auditory such as ones involving movement, smell, sense of touch, taste, etc but for the moment I’d like to focus on just the list above.

Taking the Breakdown Structure above and assembling it in a different way, I have put together the following breakdown of categories:
Here are some examples of these types of meditation include:

  • Internal – Structured – Visual: visualizing internally Hebrew letters (as described in Sefer Yetzirah)
  • Internal – Structured – Auditory: letter permutation that is spoken only in the mind (and not aloud)
  • Internal – Unstructured - Visual: letting images, colours, things form in the mind without any attempt to influence what arises
  • Internal – Unstructured - Auditory: listening to one’s own stream of consciousness without attempting to control it
  • External – Structured - Visual: focusing on an object such as a rose and blocking out everything else
  • External – Structured - Auditory: Mantra, repetition of phrase such as a prayer
  • External – Unstructured - Visual: looking at sunlight or candle light reflected on the surface of water
  • External – Unstructured - Auditory: speaking to God in a stream of consciousness such as the Bratzlav Chassidim do on a regular basis

As you can see there are a variety of different combinations of meditation. Whether they are directed by an internal or external stimulus to the practitioner; then there is the question of whether the meditation is structured or not. Finally there is the question of which senses to involve and for the examples above it was sights and sounds.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment on meditation, but hopefully it has illustrated some of the different forms. And also how using a breakdown structure can get you to think about choosing the right approach to meditating on a particular topic.

Edit: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan defines meditation as a controlled manner of thinking.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Path of Dots, Projects for finding a job and success

An example job hunting project seen through the lens of Sefirot

This article by the PMhut website called: “Turn your job search into a project” sums up one of the main messages of this blog very nicely. That message being - if you are struggling to get something done as a practitioner or don’t know how to plan and execute the Work – run it as a project.

The PM toolkit offers lots of different styles of project and the important thing is to pick the right one process. The basics of Project Management are: Plan – Do – Check – Act and I’ll leave it up to the reader to find out more about choosing the right project to progress their Work. Hopefully in a future post I’ll show how the Abramelin procedure looks translated in to a project plan.

For the moment though I’d like to show how the article from the PM hut for finding a job can be viewed through the lens of the 10 Sefirot. (Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that I am not an expert in Kabbalah when reading this post and blog in general).

Defining the Kind of Job You Want (Keter)
This is the level of will, where a person has a desire that transcends rational thought. You know that you have a desire to do something productive but that is all.

Putting a Plan in Place To Get the Kind of Job You Want (Chochmah)
Now comes the spark of intuition from the psychic intuitive part of your mind. It’s the first kernel of an idea that comes out of the level of pure will and it has no defined structure or layout yet. For example, like me saying: “I want to be a space pirate”. Beyond that statement I have no idea yet how to make it happen.

Organizing Yourself to Be Successful in Your Quest (Binah)

The level of Binah is one of putting structure in to place, where limitations start to be defined that give shape to the idea from Chochmah. “Space Pirate” are just words, until we start to plan out what route a person takes to get there. Space is not a friendly place, training and planning is required to get to this goal and Binah is the place where the idea is mapped out.

Gaining and Maintaining Commitment to your Job Hunting Project (Chesed, Gevurah)
Chesed means expansiveness, the wild rush to encompass all in its path. Gevurah means constraints and holding back. To me it’s a bit like the feeling of being at the top of a very tall slide. Part of me wants to rush forwards and part wants to hold back and remain still. The same applies to the stop-start journey of looking for a job.

Taking Massive Action (Tiferet)
This level is one of harmonious beauty, not just the sum of the parts of Chesed and Gevurah. If Chesed maps to the right arm and Gevurah to the left, then Tiferet is the torso with all its intricate beauty. So at this level the plan birthed in Chochmah and mapped out in Binah progressed through the start-stop of Chesed and Gevurah. Now in Tiferet it gains proper momentum and it is a beautiful feeling.

Monitoring and Controlling Your Planned Activities (Netzach, Hod)

Having achieved momentum a similar start-stop cycle repeats – this time a smoother cycle, less an all or nothing. Netzach wants to give like Chesed but according to the measure of the giver. Hod wants to hold back but according to the one receiving. In other words both start and stop are done in a considered way.

Staying Focused on Your Goal and Your Plan (Yesod)

This is the second to last Sefirah (singular of Sefirot). It is the centre of imagination and sexual energy. Now that you are in the flow of job seeking you are on a roll, executing the plan and making smooth adjustments to stay on track. It’s a sexy feeling to know you’re riding high and now you can really visualize what realistically the future may well look like (rather than wild flights of fancy).

Enjoying Life (Malchut)

Now we are in the final Sefirah that receives from the others but does not give back. You’re on the path to a new job and having done all the preparation well you now need to wait patiently for the results. They will come in their own time and you can enjoy this time to see the fruits of your labours grow and come to completion.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Project: Hebrew Immersion Study Course

Since my current long-term reading project is soon coming to an end in May 2011, I've decided to start-up another long term reading project. The aim of this project is two-fold:

  1. To improve my knowledge of Hebrew
  2. To learn the background texts that put Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah in context

Measuring Improvements to my knowledge of Hebrew
The first goal is fairly straightforward but can be difficult to measure. Short of doing some exams to prove my knowledge and comprehension of biblical and medieval Hebrew I'm not sure how to measure success in this area.

One possible indicator of proficiency in Hebrew is to try to translate various books on Kabbalah from Hebrew to English. If you have any suggestions for measuring proficiency in Hebrew then I'd love to hear about them.

Learning Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah in Context
The second goal is based on two concepts. The first being that from a Rabbinic perspective a person studying Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah needs to be grounded in an understanding of the whole of the Torah (5 Books of Moses), plus the writings of the Prophets and Writings. These 24 books make up what is called the Tanach which is an acronym for the Hebrew names of these 3 groupings: Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim.

The other reason for getting a grounding in these texts is that the books on Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah are based on the Tanach (and Talmud also known as Oral Law). So if for example I am reading about the mystical meaning of a particular occurrence in the Tanach then its meaning will be less clear, incomprehensible or I may even come to the wrong conclusions since I am unable to put the teaching in the wider context of the source text.

The Project Details
So here is project outline of my next long-term study project:

Scope: Read all of the 24 books of the Tanach,
Time: 3 year deadline
Cost: Sunk cost of books purchased to date is £82.95. No further purchases expected.
Quality: To be specified, see discussion on difficulty in measuring language proficiency above
Communication: Progress update on chapters covered with excerpts for parts deemed applicable to this blog.
1. Daily study is very time-consuming,
2. Study fatigue may kick-in
3. Language skills may not improve significantly
4. May not remember enough of material covered to put learning Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah in context
Issues: 1. Difficult to measure proficiency of language.

How the texts will be studied
Just to elaborate on the plan a bit further... what I'll be attempting to do is the following:

Torah (5 Books of Moses):
This is divided in to weekly portions that are read aloud in the Synagogue each week. This is further subdivided in to 7 sections. Each day I will study one of the sections by reading the Hebrew, attempting to translate it and then checking the translation. The stretch goal is to read and translate the Rashi commentary.

The Sapirstein Edition of the Torah will be used with Rashi commentary, both the Torah and Rashi have in-line translation for easy of study.

Since this study will complete within a year, it is my intention to repeat this part of the study each year so as to maximize my familiarity with the Torah and Rashi commentary. Depending on how things go, I may substitute another text during the second year and only repeat Torah with Rashi commentary twice.

Nach (Prophets and Writings)
This will be done by reading and translating one page per day and hence is a slower paced part of the study course. The Stone Edition of the Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings) will be used. There are 1502 pages to be read which at the rate of one a day will actually take over 4 years to study. Hence the rate will have to slightly higher than 1 page per day, so I shall make up the difference by reading an extra 2-3 pages at the weekend.

Concluding thoughts
If all this sounds a bit crazy then I'm in 100% agreement with you. However, I've been wrestling with the two issues of lack of proficiency in Hebrew and lack of familiarity with primary source material for some time. Rather than break up the project piecemeal and do it a bit at a time, I figure that this is the a good long term reading project that I can supplement with meditation for practical purposes.

One of the things I hoped to get more of a glimpse of during my reading of the Hechalot (Throne) and Merkavah (Chariot, as in Ezekiel's Vision) mysticism was to find out more about summoning the angel of the Torah to teach me its knowledge. However, having done an account of my life and read some stories about attempts to summon the Sar HaTorah (Angel of the Torah), I'd rather take the longer route to gaining this knowledge than to be burnt to a crisp.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Plotting a Career and Connecting the Dots...

It can be hard to track your magical career. What counts as ongoing success? What stakeholders do you need to keep satisfied? What are the major milestones? Is the work even project based or can only parts be modelled as projects (compared to it becoming business as usual).

Jason – Strategic Sorcery reminds us all that:
  1. Setting goals is not an accomplishment
  2. Magical Effects are not Accomplishments either…

Dr. Raven's Conjure – provides some excellent information on learning hoodoo
  1.  So you'd like to learn hoodoo 
  2. So you'd like to learn hoodoo – part 2 
  3. False Mages

But neither strategic sorcery or hood are not my chosen path. So instead I turn to sources such as Kabbalah with Jacobus and Practical Kabbalah and Self Creation for inspiration. As well books by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Prof. Moshe Idel and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Rabbi Ginsburgh. Jay Michaelson also provides some good advice on “Modes of learning” and “Finding a Teacher”.

Ultimate responsibility for development is down to each of us. But going from “where would you like to see yourself in 5 years time” to actually making that happen can looks like a map with two dots on it... and a big blank space in between.

That is where project management (PM) techniques can be very useful. To help plot your career as a practitioner and connect the dots. Whether it is using project schedules, breakdown structures or other means of planning. The PM toolkit is a handy bag of tricks, but by itself is not enough.

That is why in the coming months I shall be looking at what motivates people, how to handle obsessive behaviour and how to navigate the path to mastery.