Sunday, January 13, 2019

Alterity & Embodiment in Afro-Cuban Caribbean Spiritualities

Two seemingly contradictory elements of experience which none the less in Espiritismo are experienced as closely related are what we call alterity and embodiment. This is in part so because, as Espiritista, the individual is constantly challenging the definition of both the self and the other. For the Espiritista this sounds something like "where is the boundary between me and my muerto(s). Even though the average Espiritista might not consider describing their activities using these words, they will intuitively find themselves in agreement with the explanation that follows.
Becoming both familiar and if not always comfortable with, at least accustomed to sharing their living space with a variety of often distinctly individual spirits is something which Espiritistas must contend with early on. The degree to which they are successful or not will determine their recognition as a good or poor medium. This is where the issue of embodiment comes in.
The reason for that is that the living space being referred to here is not a room or a home, but rather the body of the medium itself. The presence of multiple entities identified to varying degrees as distinct personalities necessitates accommodation. No example is more dramatic than the case of that phenomenon we call "fully unconscious possession" in which the "person" or personality of the medium is totally but temporarily replaced by that of the spirit.
While this form of mediumship is common in Cuban Espiritismo and is the norm for the overwhelming majority of African Traditîonal and African Diasporic Religions, in Espiritismo and some variants of Brazilian Umbanda there is also a form of semi-conscious possession, in which the medium is present during possession but the spirit is in control, leaving the medium merely an observer.
These possession experiences may require emotional or psychological adaptation on the part of the medium. Many report that they were reluctant to undergo possession of either variety. While I have only experienced fully unconscious possession, for me the only sense of anxiety I experienced at the onset of what anthropologists and psychologists classically called "the crisis of possession" was the worry I might not succeed. The actual experience has only ever been accompanied by a sense of calm detachment and occasionally a mild sense of amazement. I also felt more energized afterwards rather than the sense of depletion that is often reported by mediums. 
I draw no other conclusions than that the experience is highly individual, and note that the literature discussing this worldwide experience probably includes no more than a handful of direct interviews with mediums. Many of the interviewers came to those encounters with a lot of preconceptions and theoretical biases as well.
Not insignificantly though, while possession is a common phenomenon in Espiritismo, possession mediumship is far from the only type of mediumship and as common as it may be, there are other kinds of mediumships that may make up a greater percentage of the spirit interactions that mediums have to adapt to and develop.
Precisely because possession requires little more of a medium than surrender, these other forms of mediumship can actually be seen as challenging the medium to adjust and adapt in relation to evolving new and different understandings of self, other (spirit), and those shared spaces, most notably body, but also experiences of "not body" more than does possession.
It doesn't require much imagination to conceptualize how experiences of multiple simultaneous consciousnesses, and unconsciousness with reports of possession activity later could raise issues which might give a medium's ego cause for struggle. What however am I referring to as more subtle bodily and "not body" experiences, and how could they potentially be more challenging?
Those other most common forms of mediumship include audencia, videncia, sentencia, and telepática. These terms vary across languages and different times and places offer minor variations in classification. Videncia is psychic vision or sight, sentencia may be any sense such as touch, smell, even temperature changes. Telapática refers to the receipt of knowledge, which may also be referred to in English as clairsentience. These refer to the medium who receives messages from spirits through sight, images internal or external, or feeling touch, smell, or environmental or personal changes of temperature. Other mediums receive information as complete knowledge, they simply know.
These, at first glance "lesser" mediumships, may in fact require more struggle, more dis- and re-integration of self and other, of medium and spirit, than does possession. Two distinct challenges face a medium in the making that may slow their development.
The first is that the medium to be may have expectations of how spirit communication will be experienced as that may not be how spirit will communicate with them. The person who expects or wants to hear a voice but who is clairsentient, may not recognize spirit communication when it arrives. Similarly, if the voice a clairaudient medium hears sounds like their own rather than that of an ancient seer, he or she may question its validity. Learning to discern other within oneself is not always easy.
The challenge then is to be able to alter the awareness of self and other in order to identify inner experience as originating in self or not, and thereby identify and access non-local information. In this process, what is self, where it may reside, and even whether our bodies are solely our own in the purely western sense of self and other is brought into question. The medium as individual is altered, fractured, and ultimately reconstituted in a new, expanded and less bounded form.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Voice of Spirit: Divination & Spiritualism

Divination is about the acquisition of information. But from where and how? Africanists who focus on divination such as Tedlock and Werbner speak of a winnowing process, in which unlimited choice is focused and narrowed to a more and more precise and functional set of information. 

There are other ways of approaching the subject. As Espírito Santo suggests, one approach is not difinitive. It is probable that diviners use other strategies for inciting the flow of knowledge. It is possible that, and at least for the diviner, this is true, prior to any inquiry, knowledge is non-existant. 

It may seem contradictory, and certainly diviners are likely, at least in relation to outside interrogators, to object, but divination does not rely upon tightly rendered repetition of memorized meanings, trigged by the marks that appear as a result of a throw, be it cards, shells, bones, or other objects. It should be obvious that any nuanced reading, despite the existance of fixed interpretation systems such as Ifa, requires that a diviner be free to interpret as no two moments or situations are identical.

There are a variety of ways in which these interpretive needs can be achieved. One is by extrapolating an interpretive narrative from a stereotypical definition in a fixed divination catalogue of meanings. Another is an inventive set of meanings derived from visual stimulus. An example being a reader who allows the cards  to suggest a distinct meaning every time they read. A third is where the mechanical means is simply a device used as a placibo for the client while spirit provides an ongoing narrative to the diviner.

All of these techniques have been used in espiritismo. Espiritistas, unlike Followers of Oricha worship, utilize a wide variety of objects to facilitate divination. A short inventory of the divination tools employed by Cuban Espiritistas past and present include cups of water, mirrors, pendulums, planchettes, shells, cards, and candles. This list excludes the obvious trance state, which is perhaps the most direct form of divination possible.

One fairly consiant fact is that whether cards, some form of lots, water gazing or another method, it is quite common for the espiritista to be trained directlh by spirit to divine. The spirit may do this by means o 

In fact, this diversity mirrors the state of affairs we find in Cuban-Congo relgion, and perhaps unsurprisingly, what can be observed in Central Africa.

Another element that plays a role in the process of communication between medium and spirit is embodied sensation. Certain spiritual messages or spirit actions inspire specific physio-motor sensations such as tingling, itching, twitches, or even pain. These sensations may provide the medium with interpretive understandings.

Dreams are for the Espiritista a powerful form of divination just as they are in all Afro-diasporic traditions. Dream images, whether prosaic ones such as a power outage in a store, or more dramatic ones where bird-headed people appear all serve to provide insights that extend beyond normal awareness. As my own guide said, "when we come down in a drumming or a misa, we visit your world; when you dream, you visit ours.

Divination, for Espiritistas then, is the process of communication with other, with the realm of spirit which is beside us.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Gypsies: Spirit on the Wind

Please keep in mind that the title of this blog, as I have noted previously, includes the phrase "other interesting stuff." 

So, today I am writing on Spiritualism or Spiritism. A subject which has increasingly interested me is the interchange between Masonry, spiritualism, and Afro-Caribbean spiritualities. This entry doesn't directly address those Masonic connections, but others will. I assume that people involved with Afro-Caribbean traditions are more familiar with Masonry than vice-versa. So this may be of interest, although I am not covering basic history or background. It may at least interest esoterically minded masons.

Spirit is the wind. Spirit is smoke. Spirit travels. Spirit is.

Contempory western experience has become all about individualism. In other words, bounded experience in isolation. For most of humanity, the boundary between "me" and "other" is not so stable. Indeed, it isn't for anyone, but we like to pretend it is.

It occurs to me that African Diasporic Religions are not so much "animistic" in the sense that they believe all things have spirit, as they are "animated." I am suggesting they see all things as being potential points which spirit may enter and, and at least temporarily, inhabit. That is a significant distinction. Apart from anything else, it collapses the notion that there is a difference between for example, the spirit which inhabits a human from that which inhabits a rock. The vessel is incidental, which it has to be, since in any case it is only temporary.

All this brings me to the Gypsies, the Gitanas, the Ciganas, the Romany.  

In popular Cuban Espiritismo, the gypsies are represented by fairly stereotypical imagery. Knowledge of Gypsies is in Cuba, a matter of cultural memory. Unlike Haitians, Chinese, Spaniards, or Congos, Gypsies appear to have arrived in Cuba in the barques of memory and dream. There are those, storytellers from the tribes of both journalism and academia, who in the search for new material seem eager to fashion historicity from legend. 

It is improbable that given the porousity of travel from Spain to Cuba in the nineteenth century that no people of Romany extractìon arrived in Cuba, but the absolute lack of formal documentation of their presence establishes with certainty that if any came, their numbers were too few to establish any real community. 

That leaves us with memories, legends, and metaphor.

The Gypsy in Cuba is smoke and shadow; spirits that seem compelled to travel. Most do not peer deep beneath the surface of the popular imagery of Cuban Espiritismo, being more concerned with the practicality of working with spirits for immediate results. That of course, is an acceptable approach.

Those who are looking to develop their gifts, however, may find that beneath the characters or rolej of spirits, perhaps especially the Gypsy, there exists an imaginal hermeneutic, a descriptive language; if you will, a visual roadmap, that can teach us much.

The spirit is a gypsy. Our spirit is a gypsy as much as any spirit is. Spirit is immaterial; animating objects to materialize for a time, or making its presence felt among the living. Indeed, using the expression "our spirit" may hint at a more complex understanding of individual experiece. It suggests we all share a single spirit. At the least that we may experience consciousness in ways and contexts that are unbounded by individual personality.

While people may consider both ancestors and the spirits of one's own guides to be separate from oneself, it is also true that they are not fully so. Our ancestors live on within us materially through our dna - their blood runs in our veins. Similarly, as Espiritu Santo has noted in her book, "Developing the Dead: Mediumship and Selfhood in Cuban Espiritismo," the guides of Espiritismo are both within and without us, "are not just a 'part' of [us], but in fact, interconnected on a number of causal and structural levels." (2015:39)

Gypsies therefore, as a symbolic set of imagery for certain spirits, also provide powerful understandings of archetypal truths about the nature of spirit - those we may have relations with, and indeed our own. Gypsies are travelers. They do not occupy any space for too long, and they make their home where they are. They love the road; in other words they focus on the journey rather than the destination. 

As Essra Mohawk sang, "I am the wind; I can go anywhere, yes, even there..."

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Masonry: Making Good Men Better?

I have been watching the Masonic Interwonk for quite a few years, and it has always been a mixed bag. Like all else on the internet you have to dig for the treasures, but recently certain conclusions have become more unavoidable.

In the past, I would tire of the grand number of brethren who honestly seem to represent the lowest common denominator. Increasingly though, of late it has begun to feel as if that old claim that Masonry makes good men better is just an empty slogan. I do not mean to suggest that Freemasonry doesn't have the tools for doing so nor that it has not done so. Is it possible that in the anxiety over membership we are more and more seeing a fraternity that has as its base something other than "good men?" Perhaps what Masonry is really doing now is making mediocre men insufferable.

Some may be inclined to condemn me for being snide, or cynical, or worse - unmasonic. However my words are chosen to incite - thought. Is it not possible that we have lowered the bar so far that we are guilty of having shot ourselves in the foot?

A very serious concern we should have if we are hoping to gain membership that will insure a healthy institution moving forward is whether much of our current installed base is busy chasing away exactly the type of individual we need. If you think that I am being unrealistic, I would like to suggest you haven't spent much time in any masonic forum lately. Lest you say, "but an online Masonic forum is not a lodge", I will note that nowadays, that online forum is the first place a person curious about Freemasonry will go. Unfortunately, because of the character of the discourse of most of the "legitimate" masons one encounters there,  it is most likely also the last place they will look.

Ironic as it is, the thought has occured to me that the way to get more and better membership is to accept fewer, thereby letting the water find its level.

Of course, the male craft could just start admitting women. The women would inject a healthy dose of reason, and hopefully the miscreants would make good on their threats of demitting, thereby resolving the rest of the problems.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Expecting a Different Outcome or Looking For One?

There's an old adage that the only stupid decision is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different outcome. I think that applies pretty succinctly to the periodic efforts at rousing concern over and responding to the decline of the Craft in modern times.

I'm not going to opine that Freemasonry is dying; nor will I suggest that revival is only a few smart insights away. The majority of articles and posts on this subject take one of those two tacks. They usually throw a lot of numbers into the mill, no doubt having learnt that financial reports and business meetings are the only real Royal Secret we have, or at least the only secret the majority of us remember.

I would like to share some thoughts, or perhaps more accurately, the seed of a thought that may give birth to some useful ideas. Perhaps we have been looking at this all wrong.

One school of thought says we are on our way out and there's nothing we can do about it. Freemasonry will take its place alongside the Elks and a dozen other lesser fraternal orders. Another thinks there's nothing at all wrong and we just have to do what we have always done, just a little harder. The third school thinks pretty much the same thing except that there is some new technique we simply haven't figured out, and when we do, all will be well. Minor variations include meditations on the merits of scaled-down efficiency. What both these last two perspectives share in common is magical thinking. Magical thinking will not bring us a solution that will please us. Neither will any pedestrian, conservative ideas.

The notion that something has to radically change tends to get shot down by most schools of thought the moment it is brought up. Of course, we all know that in Freemasonry the swiftest way to be branded a heretic is to use the c-word. Change.

But it needn't be the heart of what is Freemasonry that needs change. Well, ok, Freemasonry needs to lose the business meetings, for sure, and most of the masons who manage the kitchens need to be retired, too.

However, maybe it isn't the content, but the structure that has failed us. Maybe, just maybe, we really have come to a point where the idea of independent lodges which may or may not join loose affiliational organizations makes more sense than the Grand Lodge model. Maybe, if that is too much for some to cope with, we should experiment with inverting that relationship.

In Scotland, as Bob Cooper has pointed out, the independent attitudes of individual lodges is so strong that the Grand Lodge of Scotland, on occasion gets up enough courage to offer a tentative suggestion. What it doesn't have however, is any kind of real control. That state of affairs might be exactly what North American Free

Without a doubt, most, if they think about any of these vague ruminations for more than a minute, will quickly table them. But I will say one thing which nobody will be able to contradict:

If we do not find creative ways to adapt to the challenges we are facing, change will be forced upon us. It will not be at anyone else's hands. Change will come to Freemasonry, either because we mold that change with intention, or because we have allowed it to happen through our own inaction.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review: Coalescence Esoteric and Philosophical Musings

Esoteric and Philosophical Musings of a Gyrovague

By Tau Palamas 
Coalescence is the amalgamation of a set of recondite and metaphysical teachings and artworks of ‡PALAMAS XVI° which comprise the fundamentals of a precise instrument of the Voudon+Gnostic OTOA-LCN called the Ordo Gyrovagus. Grounded in a humanistic, mystical, and living philosophy–and exploring the very heart and soul of esotericism–Coalescence picks up where Syzygy left off: developing the inner life and practice of the gyrovague; opening a clear path of personal Masonic integration; exploring the nature of aesthetic mysticism; and providing a set of initiatory rituals as vehicles for expansion.

Duly and truly prepared, with a sharpened intelligence which can link scenes, colors, shapes, and forms immediately to a world of correspondences (which suggest the underlying fundamental unity of being), the initiate makes meaning of the phantasmagoria—which, in turn, causes changes to the fluidic and malleable substance of the dreamscape itself. Then, with the audacity and authority of an ancient magus, the initiate wields the true sword of every student of the mysteries: the sovereign will. Suddenly, within what was once a surrealistic landscape with chaotic portents and confusing bits of data strewn about in a gravity- less atmosphere, there appears a dimension worthy of exploration, a state of being with secrets, information, and lessons to be learned, and beings to interact and travel further with. Such is the lifting of the veil…

Espiritismo Cruzado: Cuban Spiritism

In Cuba there are multiple espiritismos, schools or denominations of espiritismo, if you will. Though all of them may bear some similarities to Kardecism, and most likely have derived certain aspects of their traditions, doctrines, or practices from Kardecist sources, most often, their dissimilarities to Kardecist practices outweigh their similarities. Though these differences may bother Kardecists, they don't seem to bother those who practice these other espiritismos.

So what are these other espiritismos and how do they differ from one another? The following is meant to give a brief overview, a synopsis, of the forms found in Cuba.

Kardecist Espiritismo is known in Cuba as Espiritismo Científico or Espiritismo de Mesa. Heavily grounded upon the writings of Kardec, there is no appreciable difference between these and Kardecism practiced elsewhere in the world.

We will note, without real description, Bembe de Sao, which has been identified by José Millet, but for which little information is available.

Espiritismo de Cordón, also sometimes referred to by the term Oríle, for a word often appearing in Cordonista songs, is quite distinct from Kardecism in several ways. Cordón maintains certain elements from Kardecism, notably a belief in reincarnation, the search for goodness, and the purification of souls. It also has acquired multiple elements from popular Catholicism, and African influences above all related to its efforts to combat negative magic sometimes found in African practices.

Cordón practices magic through extatic methods, and is enriched through syncretization. This is not a uniform or consistent process as Cordón has no centralized authority. For these reasons, we may characterize Cordón as a form of popular Espiritismo, somewhat organic and not consistantly institutional in practice or structure.

Another, and not wide spread Espiritismo is that called Espiritismo de Caridád. This form of Espiritismo differs little from Cordón, and its differences are structural and ritualisic. Most notably, while Cordón requires an assortment of assistants - mediums, other participants as well as the director of the acción, Cardidad requires at its minimum, two people - the medium and the person seeking "la caridad." Espiritistas de Caridad function independently, mostly out of their own homes, some Cordoneros work in a similar way, so boundaries between Cordón and Caridad may be viewed as porous.

Espiritismo Cruzado or "Cruza'o" is more idiosyncratic than these others. It may or may not evince the same elements from Kardecist dogma that we find in Cordón, and while misas are common, there are many Espiritistas Cruzados who work through solo consultation as do the Espiristas de Caridad. The only element in Cruzado that is universal, is their involvement in African derived initiatic traditions, and their use of Espiritismo in relation to those traditions.

All of these Espiritismos except for the strict Kardecist form share a loosely structured set of spirit pantheons. These pantheons are less uniform than that of Oricha traditions or even than the more flexible pantheons encounted in Palo.

In the context of the work I do within Esperitismo, I do readings which in part examine situation, uncover which commissions are actively available to aid the inquirer, and offer guidance on how to move forward to develop ones own solutions and practice. If that is something an individual wants to pursue, they can contact me privately.

Espiritismo Cruzado, a product of Afro-Cuban culture's adoption and adaptation of the Kardecist Spiritism which became popular in the 1850s and 1860s is a uniquely Cuban phenomenon and distinct from forms of spiritism found elsewhere such as in Puerto Rico and Brazil.

While a lot of attention is focused on Afro Cuban initiatic traditions, far less is given to the different variants of Espiritismo. Yet Espiritismo, especially the form referred to as Cruzado, often is the entry point for involvement with all of these traditions. What is more, being non-initiatic, it is accessable to all. A basic awareness of those spirits who walk with an individual and how to mount and work with a boveda or altar, allows the person begin to develop the spiritual life.

Espiritismo Cruzado does retain typical elements of European and North American spiritism, but also nurtures significant aspects of all the African spiritual practices brought to Cuba, and that combination is found nowhere else in the new world, because even in Brazil, there is no Abakua. Cruzado however, has made itself, literally the glue that connects all Afro-Cuban religions, in part because it contains elements of the spiritual pantheons of all Cuban faiths, but also because it is non-initiatory and openly welcomes all people. It also tends to be for those reasons, where most develop their spiritual gifts first.

If you are interested in investigating which spirits make up your spiritual court in Afro-Cuban Cruzado, and want a reading as I was taught a quarter century ago in Cuba, Contact me by email at or on messenger: Eoghan Craig Ballard for details.