Supernatural and Me, Part Two – Chöd and the Superhero
Our heroes are comparable to ancient yogis and Chöd practitioners, going to extremes at great risk to their sanity—as well as to life and limb. Like Odin, they suffer for their knowledge; like Christ, they give their flesh and blood for the salvation of others. They travel in the dark and haunted places, the modern equivalent of the Indian and Tibetan carnal grounds. Their weapon of choice is the blade and fire, be it a silver-bladed knife, hatchet, sword of St. Michael, or machete; more often than not, decapitation is the means of liberating oneself from the oppressive demons being confronted. Fire burns away the roots of attachments for the hungry ghosts they encounter, and whiskey or beer, the offerings given in the Dharmapalas (Tibetan: “Guardians of the Tradition”), is the alcohol of choice.
“Chöd has long been a way of seeking direct and personal experiences of mind and divinity outside of conventional and institutional frameworks.
In Chöd practice, the yogi [male] or yogini [female] journeys into the night world – the dangerous region of ghosts, spirits, and the damned, to bless all souls, lost for a time on the wheel of existence. The selflessness of the practitioner’s compassion, his or her contact with spirits of the other-world, and the making of himself into a vehicle of healing, all tend to become a path for the hero to win the noetic Mind-Jewel of true awakening.
Chöd is a practice that combines Buddhist meditation with ancient Tibeto-Siberian shamanic ritual. The “liturgy” of Chöd is sung to the accompaniment of drum, bell, and thigh-bone horn. The word “Chöd” means to cut through, to “chop,” and what is chopped is ultimately the Ego. Initially this begins with cutting all attachments to the body and to material things. When identification with the finite mind-body complex is let go of, then the pure awareness is set free to perceive reality as it really is. The whole world becomes potent as a place of blessing power and awareness.”
—“Chöd: An Advanced Type of Shamanism”
from the Dharma Fellowship, Library: Member Essays http://www.dharmafellowship.org/library/essays/chod.htm
Not only have our heroes defeated the demons that have broken through to this world, but they themselves have descended into hell, overcome their own inner demons of a very literal nature, and confronted a reality so vast that death itself has even been conquered through the actions of an overshadowing angel: Castiel, whose name means “My cover is God,” a variation of the angel Cassiel, the ruler of Thursday. Angels who appear in the show have real names of Hebrew and Biblical origin. In addition to Castiel there is Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel, who have reappearing roles in the storyline. Unlike the traditional or even occult understanding of these angels, in the universe of Supernatural they are at war, not only with the demons of Hell led by Lucifer, but also with each other, as God has gone on vacation and not left a forwarding phone number. We are even informed that not all of the angels have even seen God, only a select few. The rest, as they say, take it on faith.
Slowly the world of “real” magic works its way into the television world, and here we experience the Angelic language, or Enochian, secret societies such as the Thule, other Hunters (a term itself derived from the writings of Dion Fortune and her book, Psychic Self-Defense),[i] magical texts including the Clavicula Salomonis, Masonic lodges (although not identified as such), and the “Unicursal Hexagram” made famous by Aleister Crowley[ii] (arguably the most influential occultist of the 20th Century, if not of the last four or five centuries) appears under the name of the Aquarian Star, the symbol of the Men of Letters (long thought to have been exterminated)—the brains who informed the brawn known as Hunters. Crowley himself even gets a slight nod when a demon, originally a mortal Englishman, becomes the King of Hell. For the uninitiated, this plays off of Aleister Crowley’s self-created magickal persona, “The Beast,” and its attendant number 666, taken from the Revelation of St. John. Crowley was a firm believer that all publicity was good publicity, and being called “the most wicked man alive” was good for business…or at least for book sales.
We even see the story arc move into the realm of pop culture itself when Sam, Dean, and their techno-sleuth sidekick Charlie—a snarky, red-haired lesbian—watch a season of the television series Game of Thrones together. Later in that episode, “Dorothy” is released from suspended animation and we learn that the Land of Oz is for real. In itself this is amusing, but the fact that Frank Baum, the author of the fourteen books in the Oz series, is said to be both Dorothy’s father and a Man of Letters, makes for them a history of hunting in this alternate universe. In real life, Baum was a member of the Theosophical Society, and the Oz series actually represents spiritual and esoteric themes.
Even if born into the “family business” like Sam and Dean Winchester, or called into it like “Buffy,” all are volunteers. Each person of the “Scooby Gang” (or whoever the sidekick is) wants to be a part of the hunt. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves—as does each viewer, each week, each time they sit down to lose themselves in the magical world unfolding before their eyes and within their imagination—when they watch one of these shows.
The show is in fact a sadhana (Sanskrit: “method for receiving attainments”), a practice, a liturgy (Greek: “the work of the people”) in a very real and strict sense of the word. Rituals are associated with it: the weekly pizza call or Chinese take-out order, the clubs surrounding it, and even a sense of connectedness that allows us to refer to these shows right now as a vehicle, even if unconsciously, to a higher world or philosophical view. The book Supernatural and Philosophy: Metaphysics and Monsters…for Idjits, and the books accompanying it in the “Philosophy and Popular Culture” series edited by Professor William Irwin (of my alma mater, King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA), is an example of how deeply these ideas permeate modern American culture.
What makes the adventures of Sam and Dean relevant even to those unfamiliar with the show is that the storyline is a fairly accurate examination of the drama in the Western psyche.
- Humans experience pain and suffering, and behind some of that suffering is a non-human cause.
- This evil is seen as increasingly active in the world, with the average person unable to either recognize or address it.
- God is absent.
- Even in the invisible world there is struggle and strife, and angels are not always nice.
- There are supernatural, occult, or esoteric forces that can assist individuals, but they are for the most part unreliable.
- In the end, all we can do is work for our own salvation and help as many people along the way as we can.
Despite this profound similarity to seekers of truth, the shaman or the yogi, our television heroes are rarely heroic in the classical sense—that is, in the sense of transcending their broken human status and uniting with the gods. Appearances aside, the difference is in something very simple: their motivation. Sam and Dean Winchester want to make the world safe from monsters, and in the process address many of their own, but their fundamental motivation is revenge.
As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes in On Killing – The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,
“Today there is a new kind of hero in the movies, a hero who operates outside of the law. Vengeance is a much older, darker, more atavistic, and more primitive concept than law, and the new antiheroes are depicted as being motivated and rewarded for their obedience to the gods of vengeance rather than those of law. One of the fruits of this new cult of vengeance in American society can be seen…if we look into the mirror provided by the television screen, the reflection we see is one of a nation regressing from a society of law to a society of violence, vigilantes, and vengeance.” (320)
Grossman is not only pointing out to us that the media is a mirror to our psyche, but—like Marshall McLuhan—that it also shapes and becomes the message itself. In his book Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man (1964), McLuhan tell us that “the medium is the message,” meaning that the very media we are exposed to, even if free of content, affects our perceptions on some level. Using a light bulb as an example, McLuhan states that the very existence of the phenomena—that is, the ability to turn on a light when we would otherwise be in darkness—changes our perceptions of ourselves and others. In this regard, we can say that the widespread presentation of supernatural themes, or any themes for that matter, changes individual and social views towards the subject matter. In short we hear the words of Allen Ginsburg (1926-1997), Beat poet and philosopher: “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”
While there are other aspects of death within Greek mythology, Thanatos, the death force within the psyche, has come to represent death as a whole, indiscriminate and far-reaching—even merciless towards both human beings and the gods. This is more of a driving force for many of the modern heroes than compassion, spiritual awakening, or redemption of some kind. While the “wounded” hero is a presentation of the hero essential for our being able to identify with it, we must be careful about the kinds of wounds and the means used to heal them that we embrace as individuals and as a society. Too often the wounds are not those of Odin, Christ, Osiris, the shaman who undertakes the grueling torture of the Sun Dance, or even the Master Mason in his Third Degree as he takes on the role of Hiram Abiff; instead, they are wounds that perpetuate the cycle of suffering, pain, and death, rather than break and heal it.
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[i] “Hunting lodges. According to Dion Fortune and several writers associated with her, hunting lodges were secretive magical lodges devoted to policing the occult community and combating corrupt magicians and magical organizations… The statements of Fortune and a few others are the only evidence for their reality, but the existence of one or even several such bodies…is well within the bounds of possible existence.” (John Michael Greer, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult [St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2004] 237.)
[ii] “Crowley had developed an Unicursal Hexagram to which all the regular traditional attributions could be made. I found later that this was not original with Crowley but could be found in the documents on Polygons and Polygrams. In any event, it was a happy find. It is a great deal easier and less tedious in operation, and I first published these findings in Ceremonial Magic [Aquarian Press]…” (Israel Regardie, The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic [Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications, 2003] 29.)
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