One of these poor schmucks was Philip H. Farber, occult author of FutureRitual, Meta Magick: The Book of Atem, and Brain Magick: Exercises in Meta-Magick and Invocation. He has also written a novel, The Great Purple Hoo-Ha.
Philip is a hypnotist, Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) practitioner, and magician. Beside his books, he also teaches courses and seminars dealing with ritual magic and NLP. DVDs of some of these can be found at Hawkridge Productions.
Friending Phil on Facebook was one of my smartest moves. Not only was he willing to answer all of my questions at length, he was also quick to give me excellent reading recommendations. And all for free. What a sucker.
In preparing for this interview, I reread some of his books, re-watched some DVDs, and reviewed some of our old correspondences. And there, staring coolly at me from behind computer screens and printed word, was the ugly beast of accusation.
This interview is an act of apology to Phil. If anyone out there has ever gotten me drunk enough to talk about my actual views on magic, you should now realize that all of those brilliant and thought-provoking ideas spewing out of my mouth were most likely lifted from this guy.
Isla: Can you explain NLP in terms a dummy like myself can understand?
Farber: Heh. I’ve struggled with simple explanations for the things I do for many years. But I’ll give it a whack. NLP is neuro-linguistic programming, from “neuro,” referring to our nervous system, “linguistic”, our ability to communicate, and “programming” the art of using language and neurology to create change. One way to look at it is that NLP provides a terminology that allows us to discuss and use language and behavior in ways that were not previously possible. The field originated from the keen observations of Richard Bandler and John Grinder, a mathematician and a linguist, influenced by Chomsky’s transformational grammar model, General Semantics, Ericksonian hypnosis, gestalt therapy, and cybernetics, among much else.
There are a ton of misconceptions about NLP, ranging from accusations of cult status to scary warnings about government and corporate mind control, most of which are easily dispelled by actually picking up a good NLP book or attending a seminar. In its most basic form, “the study of the structure of subjective experience,” NLP can generate a nice box of tools that most people can benefit from. It allows for intense states of rapport and empathy, quick healing of psychic trauma, healthy belief change, habit change and much more. It’s popular among all kinds of healing modalities, including bodyworkers, therapists, and hypnotists.
They are certainly related fields. If we take magick in the Crowleyan sense of “causing change in conformity with Will,” then NLP becomes another subset of magick. As with any other kind of human behavior, we can use NLP to model the processes that go into magick and tweak various aspects for better results. NLP techniques can be used to better access altered states in a ritual or magical context, to develop achievable outcomes for ritual efforts, to improve language used in ritual, to create new symbol sets, and a whole lot more.
Similarly, there are quite a few aspects of magick that can easily be adapted to NLP processes, including the idea of a ritual frame, various ways to work with thought forms and entities, and ways to apply metaphor and symbolism.
What is your model of interactions with nonphysical entities (i.e. gods and spirits)? Do you think they have an existence outside of our subjective experiences of them?
Can we prove the existence of anything outside our subjective experience? I’m not entirely sure. If you look at someone across the room, you aren’t really seeing him or her, you are perceiving an interpretation that your brain has constructed. In terms of physics, that person isn’t even really a solid thing, but clouds of probability and a lot of empty space. Our neurology has learned to interpret these experiences in various ways that allow us to navigate our subjective world.
We have big parts of our brains devoted to perceiving entities and making both motor and social predictions about others. Those same areas are likely active when we think about gods, goddesses, demons, angels, imaginary friends, etc. The internal models we make of other humans can be very detailed and complex – think about the last time you dreamed or daydreamed about a friend. The non-human entities that run on the same brain hardware can be just as detailed and complex – and some of them also have the ability to transfer from mind to mind. That’s not so mysterious – it is memetics.
We share entities when we tell stories, create art, build temples, and so on. Is Jehovah inside us or outside? The answer is both (whether you are a follower of that entity or not) – inside as our own concept of Jehovah and outside as memetics in the minds of others. Jehovah, like him or not, has influenced vast swaths of history, has caused the rise and decline of entire civilizations, has inspired war, peace, architecture and commerce, among much else. At what level do we decide that such an entity is “real” or “outside us”? I’m not sure it matters. I think that even if we continue to consider Jehovah as entirely imaginary, the old dude still influences a lot of people and causes change in the world, for good or ill.
The other fun thing to consider is that our individuality, our self-perception as “I” or “me” may be a trick of our brains. An area in the right frontoparietal lobe seems to provide this illusion for us and, when suppressed, subjects experience an inability to identify themselves in mirrors and a sense of cosmic unity with everything around them. Our own status as entities may be a neurological construct similar to that of Jehovah, a self-myth created in our brains. I like to think that “consciousness is a continuum and entities are its way of perceiving itself.”
Atem is an entity who is conducting an experiment in entity creation. When I wanted to write a book on evocation a few years ago, I wanted the book itself to be a demonstration of the principles that it described. So I evoked an entity named Atem, who is specifically concerned with teaching the art of evocation. Atem gave me a lot of feedback and helped to bring himself into the world, in the form of a book: Meta-Magick: The Book of Atem. In describing Atem at length, the book offers instruction in using NLP and memetics to perform evocation and to work with entities of various kinds. Atem invites readers to participate in the experiment of bringing him into the world, which provides some interesting magical benefits for the participants.
Atem also appears in a funnier, fictionalized form in my novel, The Great Purple Hoo-Ha.
I take a broad definition of language and include all the different ways that we are able to represent human experience. So I’m not limiting it to the wordy kind of language and I’m including any kind of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory or gustatory way of recording or transmitting information.
The processes of language are important in the human brain. We are constantly creating narrative, our personal stories, the mythology of own lives, and our ability to manipulate language helps to guide the narrative. Ultimately that personal narrative gives our life meaning and structure. We are able to relate it to the stories that we find around us, the mythology that helps us to make sense of our world, which further guides the process of self-definition and reality creation.
Both magick and NLP are ways of tapping into and altering that linguistic flow. Magick applies ritual, symbol, evocation and invocation to influence the direction and quality of the personal narrative. NLP uses shifts in perception and conscious use of language to similarly alter our narrative and self-concept. By changing the stories that we tell ourselves about our world, in effect we change the world.
What do mirror neurons have to do with magic?
In short, we all have motor neurons, brain cells that are activated when we move muscles in our bodies. In most of us, about 20% of all motor neurons are also mirror neurons. That is, they are also activated when we watch (listen to, feel, read about or imagine) someone else performing a behavior. Everyone has experienced the contagious nature of yawns – when you experience someone else yawning, your mirror neurons respond and you want to yawn, too. Or when you hear a fantastic guitar solo and have the urge to play air guitar – that’s certainly mirror neuron activity. More usefully, mirror neurons are how we share feelings with each other, how we empathize, develop rapport, and communicate on a nonverbal level. When you feel emotion from looking at a painting or listening to a song, those are your mirror neurons at work. When you feel exhilaration watching a winning athlete, or watching the hero of a movie prevail, those are mirror neuron responses.
Mirror neurons make predictions about behavior. For instance, when you shake hands, you likely do a pretty good job of getting your hand in just the right place to receive your friend’s hand. More subtle intuitions are also possible via the mirror neuron system. We often feel excited in the presence of exciting people, sad in the presence of sad people. When a sadsack comes into the room, it takes the energy of everyone there down a few notches via the mirror neurons. When a charismatic person enters, we feel the energy of the people around us rise.
Now, to activate mirror neurons, the brain has to make a decision. It has to decide if something is worth mirroring. Behaviors worth mirroring generally come from what we perceive to be a sentient being similar to ourselves. So the brain and mirror neurons have to distinguish “entity” from “brick”. They can be fooled. We often find ourselves responding with mirror neurons to drawings of humans (ever laugh at a cartoon?), to computer-generated music (which can still make you tap your toes), and to our imaginings of people (ever have your body respond to a fantasy of a favorite sex partner?).
So mirror neurons come into play when we are working with entities of any kind. They let us know that something is an entity or can be worked with as such. They help us to bring qualities into us during invocation. When you see an icon of a god or goddess and feel something of their power, that experience is mediated by the mirror neurons. On a more collective level, mirror neurons are important in sharing ritual experience and synchronizing states, behaviors and activity.
Mirror neurons are also a triggering mechanism in additional brain systems that help us to make more complex social predictions, to develop rapport and create our mythic self concept.
Readers who are interested in the union of neuroscience and magick may enjoy my most recent non-fiction book, Brain Magick, which explores these ideas in depth.
I read in an interview that you had some interesting ideas for the application of magic in Second Life. What do you think of the renewed interest in virtual reality technology like the Oculus Rift, and how will this affect the future of magic?
I was fascinated with VR back when it was a brand new idea in the ’80s and ’90s and I got to play around with some of the early devices, back then. I’ve dabbled a bit with Second Life, but have never tried Oculus Rift. A couple years back, I was invited to give a little magick workshop in SL by an NLP trainer, Gina Pickersgill. Gina set up a ritual environment in SL that tested out some of the neuroscience ideas I was talking about. I found it surprisingly powerful to watch my avatar perform ritual actions. It turned out to be a neat way to activate mirror neurons and suggested some fun and exciting methods that might be explored. Some of that might still be on YouTube.
Personally, my tendency in magick is to use less props and tools and more body and imagination. However, I do think that VR can offer some very powerful experiences that might be a great way to help someone learn some of the basics of magick and how to direct active imagination. If you can develop locations and avatars in SL, you can learn to imagine ritual space, symbols and entities in your own mind.
What projects are you currently working on?
The main project right now is a book on the uses of cannabis in magick, both historically and in modern ritual. I’m also preparing for a series of seminars in the spring of 2014, including NLP Practitioner Training and a Meta-Magick weekend seminar. I’ll soon be posting more info about these at meta-magick.com.