Saturday, June 6, 2009


Last month I set out to do another session in the incubation chamber. I've done a few now, mostly meditation but a couple of vision-seeking/journeywork sessions as well. I had high hopes when I set out, as I'd been wanting to work with some psilocybe and amanita muscaria I'd had on hand. 

I set up the space, invoked the spirits and deities, went through all the processes I go through to set the stage for the work, and waited. 

There was an immense sense of presence. It was so strong it woke my roommate, who had been sleeping in his room. I felt a sense of the room breathing around me. I waited more. I sang and prayed and watched.

Yet beyond that sense of presence and breath, "nothing" happened. 

I've worked with LSD  a couple of times before and had some very powerful experiences with it. One I would even describe as profound. I've had some very good success with smoking salvia divinorum, though that was an entirely different quality of experience than the LSD had been. After all the accounts I'd heard and read about different types of fungal entheogens, I'd been expecting something big and consuming.

Sometimes, things don't work. They flop for whatever reason. Maybe the dried fungi were too old. Perhaps they weren't going to work with my body chemistry. Maybe there was nothing the deities or spirits wanted me to do that day beyond spend four hours in meditation and ritual. Maybe I was expecting the wrong things and was too focused on what I'd been told rather than on being in the experience.

Yet our failures teach us just as our successes do. The lessons of failure can be very valuable if we are willing to accept them and work with them. When I posted about the issue in my LJ later that day, I got several responses from folks who were glad to hear that they were not alone in having rituals that didn't work out as planned. 

When ritual fails, you're not alone. It happens to all of us, from the veriest noob to the grizzled grey elder. I can't think of anyone who has never in their entire life had a ritual poop out on them at least once; some have even been spectacular in their fail. Failure, though, is a part of the human condition. We all experience it sometimes and how we deal with it is important.

In failure, we learn that the universe isn't all about us. The spirit world isn't a giant wish-granting machine where you put in your ritual and out pops the result you wanted. Life, the universe, and everything is a big place and we're just tiny motes within it. We have our roles to play, but that doesn't mean we're at center stage.

We learn a certain amount of humility in our failures. We may do everything right and still not get the result we wanted. Approaching spirit with humility and knowing that we're only a part of the greater whole is important. Pride may be a value of CR Paganism, but it should be properly placed pride and not hubris.

Failure encourages us to be resilient, to be creative, and to keep on trying. If we don't get it right the first time, perhaps something needs to be changed. Maybe we need to readjust our expectations. Maybe the conditions weren't right. Maybe we were using the wrong tools or the wrong symbol set. Maybe spirit or deity was busy elsewhere. Some things have to be worked for much harder than others and ritual is no exception to this general rule in life.

Patience comes with failure. Learning to bide our time until the next opportunity is an important lesson when dealing with not just the Otherworlds but this one as well. Planting a seed in midwinter is unlikely to be as successful as planting it in the spring, in its proper time and place. 

Failure also teaches gratitude. Success won't feel like much when it's your only experience. Its value tends to decline emotionally in proportion to how routine it is. Failing shows us that success is a possibility, not a guarantee, and encourages us to make the most of success when it comes along. 

When we examine the reasons for ritual failure we learn to think clearly and systematically about how we design ritual and how we understand its purposes. Taking things apart afterwards is a very helpful practice whether the ritual succeeded or not. Most of the folks I know who do public ritual have debriefings with the ritual team afterwards to discuss what went well, what didn't, and what could be improved. Examination, ideally, leads to growth.

In the wake of this particular experiment I've determined that I'd like to try again, but with fungi that are fresh rather than dried. This may have some effect on the outcome. I know I have more luck with salvia, so I'll be doing more in-depth work with that in some of its forms other than dried, unenhanced leaf to see if that will change the ritual results.

I'll pay more attention to what is happening than what I wish for, as well. There were currents I could have ridden in that ritual that I failed to because of my preconceived expectations. Rather than doing the work, I expected to be carried along.

The session was a failure in terms of what I had hoped for, yet it taught me a number of things about myself and the process of the work I'm doing, and for that I'm very grateful.


  1. I completely agree with you on the usefulness (and ubiquity) of failure in ritual. I have certainly experienced my share - and overall, while many rituals don't "fail" exactly, neither are they all fireworks. I have learned so much that way.

    I did want to make a couple entheogen comments. One is that if you've had some success with regular unpotentiated salvia, you may really find some interesting results with the enhanced leaf. I have done 5x, 10x and 20x. That last one is often pushing it - too much, overloads my brain. But 5x is noticeably more powerful than the regular stuff, and really takes it to another level.

    Secondly, you don't want to take fresh, undried amanita. From all accounts I've ever read, it will make you very ill but have no real psychoactive effects. The chemical reactions that take place as it dries are what gives it power (as long as it dries naturally, without application of heat). However, it's true that it will probably lose some effects if kept a long time, so getting a new supply of recently dried amanita would be ideal.

  2. Thanks Kate -- I was thinking more in terms of the psilocybe than the amanita for the fresh mushrooms. I did get some tincture of salvia to try out recently. My next attempt will be with that. The intensity of the experience can be varied by varying the dosage and the tincture came with very complete instructions. I'm also considering enhanced leaf after I've given the tincture a try.

    I appreciate your comments!

  3. Never tried the tincture, will be interested in hearing your experiences with it.

  4. I'll be sure to write about it when I do.

  5. If you want to access the inspiration techniques of the old bards. I wouldn't suggest using drugs to do it. You can find better ways to access inspiration by studying the works of RJ Stewart Matthews.
    also, John and Caitlin Matthews
    I respect your search and wish you well in it.

  6. Anonymous -- I've read a great deal of the Matthews and of RJ Stewart. Stewart's work is essentially "Celticized" ceremonial magic inspired by William Grey. I disagree with a lot of his conclusions. The Matthews are primarily writing about Harneresque techniques that have little to do with historical Celtic practices. I'm not particularly interested in either, and "bardic" isn't what the early Irish would have called the work anyway.

    It is highly likely that entheogens played some part in Celtic practices in the past -- I wrote an article with Timothy White for Shaman's Drum about amanita muscaria as a potential theme in insular Celtic literature some years back, in fact. Very few peoples and religions have not had some entheogenic component at one point or another in their history. I find the prejudices against entheogens in modern Paganism to be somewhat puritanical, really. Certainly the tools don't work for everyone, and not everyone is mature enough to work with them regardless. That does not mean that they aren't a valid way for some people.

    That said, different techniques work at different times and under different conditions and some people respond better to some techniques and tools than others. What I blog about here is experimental and I certainly don't advocate that everyone should imitate me -- far from it. I experiment with a lot of different kinds of ritual, from weekend backpacking vigils to incubation chamber work to daily short prayers and invocations at my altars. I won't know how things work if I don't try them. I write about them here so other folks can get some idea of the various options available. I write about failure as well as success not as a request for anonymous comments about working with popular occult authors materials but as a document of where my work is and where it's going.

  7. Anonymous--further to Erynn's comments, I would add that she has done and does do the techniques that (in your inaccurate terminology) "the old bards" used, and she learned of them by actually studying the original Irish and Scottish sources involved.

    If study of Stewart and the Matthews' works gets you into actually looking at the real, original, authentic sources, then I think they're useful; otherwise, thinking that anything they do is in line with "the old bards," druids, or anything else is fallacious at best. The Celtic Shaman, for example, is almost entirely worthless as far as any relation to the actual lore is concerned...

  8. If you reread my original posting you will see that I did not insult your chosen method. All I offered was another option.

    You will find the techniques used by the old bards buried in the works of the Matthews and Mr. Stewart - and many other authors.

    I have successfully used them myself.

    I am well aware of the successful mystical use drugs have been put to in various cultures throughout the ages.

    I simply know that they are not necessary.

    Obviously you are free to use what ever techniques you wish.

  9. Anonymous -- the fact that some of the techniques discussed by Stewart and the Matthews' work doesn't mean they have anything at all to do with historical pre-Christian Celtic practices. By all means, use them if you like but it makes no sense to claim they are anything but modern. It's like claiming that OBOD is practicing ancient Celtic Druidism, which even OBOD will admit is not the case.

    And no, of course one doesn't "need" entheogens to do Otherworld work. That, likewise, doesn't mean they can't be used successfully.

  10. Anonymous, can you elaborate on what, in your opinion, these techniques of "the old bards" happened to be? You seem to stand behind and support the interpretation of the authors you mentioned regarding the idea that these techniques do derive from those sources, and yet I'm not clear which specific techniques it is to which you seem to be referring. (And no, the reply of "Just read their books" is not sufficient--I have, and I've not found in any of their work any techniques that are legitimately from any ancient Celtic source.)

  11. I know well the difference between modern and old practices.

    When I say "within" the works of the Matthews and of Mr. Stewart I mean just that.

    The text of Robert Kirk put together by Mr. Stewart and the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Matthews.

    Within those texts which were compiled by those authors are the techniques you need.

    However, you must do the work to understand them and that requires thinking without thinking. Moderns tend to miss the forest for the trees.

    Moderns CAN think like the ancients. It however does takes an awful lot of work.

    I also never claimed the drugs did not work. I again simply said that they are not necessary.

    Once you know the way to a destination in the real world you don't need the directions any more.

    The door and the way of opening it are different for everyone.

    If you need chemicals to open the door you don't need them once the door is open.

  12. I am an animist/polytheist who uses entheogens in my work. For me, it is not about the particular constituent of the plant that might be used to get the door opened, it is an ongoing alliance with a botanical agent that is more than the sum of its parts. There is an unmistakeable spiritual presence with entheogens that makes them a valuable resource, not just because they possess psychotropic potential, but, because their presence also facilitates reconnection in a myriad of other ways.

    When I consume an entheogen with the intent to re-establish a connection with another dimension of existence, the plant and I become one in the process. We become something more than either of us alone could become--I am shaped and molded by such experiences in the same profound ways that my ancestors were shaped and molded through similar experiences.

    Stewart's and the Matthews' work doesn't have the capacity to reach deeply enough into the rich loam of the human psyche--maybe in a few hundred years when their techniques have had the opportunity to sink a little deeper into the collective consciousness. Humans have evolved alongside, intertwined with, because of, and, sometimes, in spite of, entheogens; they are still the animist's route.

    Anyone who has had a profound entheogenic experience and then begins to practice the techniques advocated by the Matthews' and Stewart is going to quickly realize that they are apples and oranges. I would advise engaging in a work that includes both approaches, simultaneously, and see what kind of transformational potential arises, for you.

    The Search for Imbas is a necessarily experimental/experiential process--it is unique for each individual and although one might experience a taste of what that can be like through other people's work, it has to be experienced first hand and on one's own terms. If Stewart's and the Matthews' approaches were that phenomenal, than their approaches would speak for themselves...My suggestion, anonymous, is to find your own path, I think that you will find it more fulfilling than someone else's packaged product.

    Have a wonderful day ;-)

  13. Kenneth, you might wish to reread what I've written.

  14. Anonymous -- I think you're entirely unfamiliar with my own work and writing if you're suggesting that I've never read any of the source texts that either Stewart or the Matthews' are reprinting. I've done my own translations of texts like the Cauldron of Poesy.

  15. Anonymous, you still have not answered the question: what techniques, specifically, do you have in mind when you're saying you've done them?

    Have you done a tarbfeis? If so, where did you get the bull-skin? I find it rather fascinating that in John Matthews' essay on dream incubation, he relies as much on things like the Graeco-Roman accounts of the oracle of Trophonios as he does on actual Irish, Scottish, and Welsh literature, and when he does the latter, he's so selective and piece-meal that it leaves much to be desired...

    Robert Kirk's work is more Christian than Celtic (and it certainly isn't bardic), and owes far more to late supernaturalism beliefs than anything that is actually from even medieval Insular Celtic sources, much less anything that is reliably attested in ancient sources. Stewart's edition of the work also is not the work of a skilled textual editor and interpreter, and there are better and more informed editions of Kirk out there which would be better to consider.

    It is entirely possible, Anonymous, to have looked at the work of the Matthews and Stewart, to have gone to their lectures and workshops and functions, and to have found them seriously wanting. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think this is what Erynn has said has been the case with her repeatedly in the comments on this thread, and you don't seem to be understanding that such is the case.

    As for the idea of "thinking like the ancients" and "thinking without thinking," that particular comment really demonstrates how little you understand any of this. One of the best ways to "think like the ancients" (and by this, I believe you mean to say "think like the people who wrote the texts which have this information in them, and those people were medieval, not ancient") is to read the texts they were reading and writing, and to read them in their original languages. Erynn has done this. It would also be useful to read the most up-to-date, real scholarship relating to these matters (not things written by pagans who have nothing but their own names to augment their authority), which is again what Erynn has done.

    What becomes quite apparent in doing this is that if anything, thinking is quite to the fore in the entire process, and there was probably thinking combined with training and research and insight involved on their part, not this "thinking without thinking" that you are praising so highly. If you want that, that's fine, but it's called Zen, not the work of "the old bards." Perhaps instead of going on "thinking without thinking," Anonymous, you should get out there and do a bit more regular thinking, and reading, and research.

  16. You know Erynn, I have to apologize; from the beginning I posted to your blog only to help.

    I did not post with any intent to insult you or your work.

    It appeared you had had failures in your search for Imbas. Since I was successful I thought I would mention the beginning of a path that helped me.

    My studies did not begin or end with the Matthews or Mr. Stewart.

    I've studied, researched and experimented for over 30 years.

    It has been a very sedimentary process.

    As for the methods I have spoken of, I refer to the meditation of the three cauldrons and the Stone upon the belly in a darkened room while fasting.

    Do I use them any more? No, I don't need to.

    As I have said before I respect your search and wish you well in it.

    Again, I hope you will accept my apology. I have nothing but respect for you and your work.

  17. Anonymous - I appreciate the apology, thank you. I've written about both the stone on the belly material and about three cauldrons meditations in the past and they do make up a good bit of certain forms of the work I do. I taught them last year at PantheaCon, in fact, and have a fairly extensive section in my ogam book about them. I use both every time I go into the incubation chamber for any purpose.

    I do understand a desire to help out, but it also helps to understand the purposes behind posts like this one before responding to them; documenting how and why things fail is just as important as documenting how and why things succeed if one is to truly share a path with others.