Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Around the table with...Dharmaruci.

Dharmaruci was born on 12th February 1958, at 17:37 in London. He runs Astrotabletalk, an astrology blog, and lives on Dartmoor.

Dharmaruci, Howard and Rex.

H - Dharmaruci, thanks for coming. As you know, Rex and I are writing a graphic novel about a 'magician sleuth.' Rex has told me you are a practicing magician. I'm not going to beat-about-the-bush. Are you a magician?
D - I don’t know, Howard. I haven’t thought about it like that….
H - Rex, I thought you said --
R - Let him finish.
D - To call yourself a magician is to give yourself a superior identity. That’s usually something that people do when they're in need of an identity. I tend to find that real power lies in people that don’t refer to themselves in such a way.
H - So do you believe in magic?
D – In the sense of magic being an awareness of unseen forces and powers (which a lot of people would ridicule): yes, some of the time, when it's appropriate. When you're doing astrology, it allows you to see behind and into things in a way that the ordinary five senses, and intuition, can’t. The astrologer Richard Tarnas was working as an experimental psychologist with Stanislav Grof in the 1970s, and when they tried using astrology, they found that they got to the heart of people’s issues much more quickly than with conventional psychological methods. Astrology is like a looking glass into what is actually happening. That's why I'm so often amazed by it, as there is no reason it should work, but it does.
H - Do you have an understanding of how it works?
       D - I often talk about this on my blog. I currently think it has to do with reality having a way of becoming whatever you think it is, particularly if you're part of a collective that shares your view. I haven’t entirely worked this one out yet, though, because of course you also get delusion, where reality clearly contradicts what you think it is.... 

      The scientific view, for example, is not as objective as most scientists would have us believe; it is a consensual view of reality that we take as an absolute truth. We think of the universe as ‘scientific,’ and it becomes that. We think of the universe in astrological terms, and it becomes that. It's very mysterious. There's an intimate connection between the universe and consciousness, each shaping the other -- as any mystic or half-way decent system of knowledge would tell you. Mainstream science is very naïve and literal in this respect. 
       H – So you view astrology, then, as an alternate way of understanding reality?
       D - I think of astrology as a system of knowledge that respects and uses all our faculties. Science is very strong on rationality and sensation (air and earth) but not very respectful of intuition and feeling (fire and air). . . and so to me, astrology is a more complete system of knowledge than science. Jung saw astrology as the summation of ancient knowledge -- as an umbrella, if you like, that can incorporate all other systems. A proper relationship between astrology and science would see science as a specialisation within this broader tradition. What we have instead is a Sorcerer’s Apprentice situation: We have many brilliant scientific inventions, but havoc is being wreaked within the psyche because the apprentice has taken over, pretending to knowledge outside of his areas of competence.
       H – And yet many people would argue that the 'truths' of science can be tested and proved, while the 'truths' of astrology are more subjective. . . . 
       D - Astrology works, but it can't be explained in scientific terms. Like science, it is empirical, it is based on observation, but its truths are not statistical. They don't rely on laboratories and ‘double-blind’ tests. They are the truths of a novelist, or of a work of art. It would seem ridiculous to try to reduce the insights of a novelist to a lab situation...but that's what the scientists want to do with astrology in order to discredit it. It is more than a Sorcerer’s Apprentice situation: the apprentice has become bold enough to stage a coup!
       R – Yes, there are many things that are real and 'true' that can't be tested by the scientific method. For example, there is no scientific test for whether you love someone or not!
D - No, you can't prove it in a scientific sense. Or look at evolution. It's an example of a theory that has become an accepted fact in science, but you can't observe it or test it.
R – Well, you can observe it. There are moths in the black country [the industrial midlands of England] which changed their wing coloring over the course of a few generations as a result of the pollution in the atmosphere, in order to hide from their predators.
D – Yes, you can observe the odd smaller change, which supports the theory. But evolution involves massive change and development, and you can’t observe that within a human timescale. Don’t get me wrong: I think that the process of evolution does occur, it is true, but it can't be proved in a scientific sense. And I don’t think the mechanism is understood yet either – I think evolution happens far more quickly than a process of natural selection and random mutation alone would seem to allow for. This is an area where scientists are willing to forgo their usual criteria of strict observational laboratory experiments and still accept it as truth -- yet in another area, like homeopathy, for example, they will apply endless tests to prove it is untrue and thus reject it as having any validity.
Evolution, like many scientific theories, is now seen as an absolute truth. We have developed a new Creation Myth – Evolution – that reflects the tribal myths we live by.
R - Dharmaruci, you and I have known each other for about 14 years?
D - Yes, Rex.
R - I wanted to talk a little about achieving altered states, because this plays a part in our graphic novel. You and I went to Peru together, where, amongst other things, we took part in ayahuasca ceremonies. Ayahuasca is seen by many South American shamans as a 'teacher plant.' Do you advocate achieving altered states through the ingesting of plant matter?
D - Yes. I don’t do it now myself. I probably would if I got the chance, but it doesn’t really come my way. There's someone I know who uses peyote – and they use it in a traditional way within a traditional context.
R – There's a lot of anthropological evidence of the use of teacher plants in traditional ceremonies as a means of acquiring knowledge. In Peru, the shamans we worked with were seeking knowledge of the past or future by journeying into what Howard and I, in our book, call the mundus.
D – For us, these plants are foreign and exotic and glamorous and dispensed by master shamans, but I’m sure for traditional people they would have been more ordinary and down-to-earth, and used for particular reasons. For one person I know who uses a teacher plant regularly in a traditional manner, my observation is that this person tends to get rigid and literal in their everyday life, and the plant is a way of loosening them up. The spirits did indeed tell them to go on that path, but ‘the spirits’ can be very down to earth!
       So these kinds of plants suit different people in different ways...and some people not at all! Some people are inclined to drift off into other states of consciousness anyway, where they can drift out of time, or have spirit guides turn up. There isn’t a place for that in our society, it seems -- though if they lived in a tribal society, they'd be given proper training and called medicine men.
R - Whereas in our society they are just considered mad!
H - Fritjof Capra (author of The Tao of Physics), discusses a similar issue in his book The Turning Point. He posits the theory that all systems are trying to reach balance and homeostasis. Humans too. He thinks that instead of dosing ‘mad’ people with pharmaceutical drugs, they can be helped to reach balance by allowing them to express whatever it is that they are going through, and that in that expression there is often a good deal of wisdom. It's an interesting subject: What is mad? Who decides what is and isn’t mad?
D - The great psychologist R.D. Laing, as a young man, thought that it was the doctors who often were more nuts than the patients!
H - We seem to have started to discuss issues that verge on psychology. Is there a link between psychology and magic do you think?
D - Certainly astrology has gone in that direction. It used to be events-based: If you have this chart you will have a noble birth, for example; or if you have this one you will be unlucky in love.
R - I have both of those charts!
D - Nowadays, though, there are far more choices as to what people can do with their lives and far more fluidity between the various levels of society. So it’s harder to predict what would suit someone or what they will do. And also, I think we have become psychically eviscerated because what I call the Western negative Saturn, the 'Protestant work ethic' if you like, has taken over, so that now it's what you do and how much you earn that matters, in quite an extreme way. So astrology is becoming more psychological in response to this. It says that the planets are named after gods because the planets are gods and they inhabit each one of us, so get to know them and honor them and you will be fulfilled. Ignore them at your peril. Look at what Poseidon/Neptune did to Odysseus who, in his hubris after Troy, thought he was a match for the gods!
So astrological psychology, if you like, is magical and ritualistic: you are invoking the gods. When I write about Pluto, he turns up behind me in the room. He likes me honoring him, he wants me to write about him. What did the astronomers do with Pluto a few years ago? They demoted him to the status of a dwarf planet. What a thing to do to the Lord of the Underworld! What does that say about our collective hubris, our inflated belief that humans and their reason are the summit of creation and all should bow to that?
I think that astrology gives psychology a relationship to the archetypal forces within us; it gives us a relationship that the ancients would have felt, though for them probably in a more externalised (though no less real) way. And without these forces around you, personal transformation is difficult, and the universe is a much less interesting place!
       R – One thing I found interesting when you did a reading for me, Dharmaruci, was that it was like a whole day, an event.
D - There's an important point in that. It is worth traveling for a week, if necessary, just to get to that hour of the reading. It is an event.
R - My first introduction to shamanic practice was in the Lake District, and I remember that the train journey there, the course, and the journey back, were all integral to the process of discovery that I went through, were all a part of the psychology of it.
H - I often find that, too. When I go through deep processes of inner change and inner work, the events that surround those times are an important part of the process. Another important part is the way these ceremonies are held. Would you agree?
D – Yes. Ritual and theatre is a part of the practice, an integral part. You need to somehow signal that we are entering a different space together. You need to bring yourself to an inner space, where the inner transformation can happen.
H - Which might be through a long journey – or through the creation of the ceremonial atmosphere, for example. 
R - When I used to run ceremonies, I’d become the part of the shaman. It acted like a trigger for myself and for others to respond to.
H - Which brings us back to psychology again. The ceremony leader playing a role in order to allow other people the space to go where they need to internally for psychological change to happen.
D - It's a complicated issue, however. What too often happens is that people then afford these ‘leaders’ a superior position afterwards, sort of projecting a need onto them. People get involved in some group that is meant to be of spiritual or psychological benefit, and that can be a good thing. But after the initial benefit, the next step should be to reclaim your power from the leader, in the sense of relying on yourself for guidance, rather than on that other person. It's very natural for people to give their own sense of authority to someone who knows more, or who seems to – and, sadly, it's often the norm for people who lead this kind of stuff to not step out of that role once the ceremony is finished. It is the minority only who can step out of it. In religion you see this, too: priests becoming completely wrapped up in their role and the kudos and identity it gives. It's normally the genuine mystics who don’t give a shit about it all, for they have something more genuine going on. They don’t need an identity, and that’s rare.
H - I wonder sometimes if that giving away of power, and the learning to take it back, is a necessary part of the journey, part of the learning?
R – Like, you get there in the end....
D - Yes, it's all part of the process. How else would you learn?
R - Dharmaruci, what do you think about Aleister Crowley's definition of magic as the ability to affect matter with thought. Is it real? Has it ever been real?
D – That's only a partial definition of magic, as you can transform yourself psychologically through magical processes. Magic isn’t just about transforming matter with thought; it's also about transforming thought with thought. Actually, if anything, I’d give the opposite definition to Crowley. I’d say magic is the ability to affect thought through matter – you do the ritual (matter), and it changes you (thought). To me, Crowley’s definition has the suggestion of a thirst for power about it. Yes, you can change matter with thought, but why emphasise that?
H - I wonder if the medieval alchemists were trying to transform thought with thought as much as matter with thought?
D – That seems to be how the alchemists are seen nowadays: that the project of transmuting lead into gold reflected a goal of inner transformation. It was ritualistic. Religions tend to work in a more static form: obey these rules and you will be saved. If you are transforming your thoughts, you are transforming your beliefs, and there isn’t room for that in religion. 
R - You were a Buddhist monk, weren’t you?
D - I wouldn’t say monk. I was part of that tradition for 18 years. It was my extended misspent youth!
R - What kind of influence has that had on how you see the world now?
D - I think that practically everyone in their twenties gives their power away to someone -- and eventually, hopefully, we claim it back. What I was doing was allowing a teacher to have power over me. The expression ‘Giving your power away’ has become a bit clichéd. What I mean is letting someone have undue influence over you, of not having the confidence to stand up to them and not having confidence in your own judgement. It can happen at any age, in any relationship: with your boss, with your parents, with a ‘spiritual’ teacher, or even with a written tradition. Few people would admit they are doing it, but nonetheless many people are quite happy like this. It provides a kind of security and certainty. But for some of us there seems to be a desire to awaken, and so it becomes a conflict that can take many years to resolve, bit by bit.
       For myself, I still struggle with Science as a system of knowledge. I’m aware that it has a hold over how I see things, that it interferes with my ability to see the world in my own way. You can’t always just decide to claim the power back. You struggle, but it is a death and rebirth that are needed when the time is right, and you need the gods with you. This is because the power is not ‘yours’, it belongs to a deeper level of the psyche that in reality calls the shots. That is why the gods need to be honored. Astrology teaches us this.
       So in my late 30s my world began to rock, after years of rumblings, and it was essentially this process of starting to trust my own judgement in a way that I hadn’t before. So that, if you like, is how Buddhism has influenced the way I see the world: the importance of trusting your own judgement, even when everyone else thinks you’re wrong. A fantastic lesson, a deep and powerful lesson, but there was nothing special to Buddhism about it; Buddhism just happened to be the wall against which I’d been banging my head for all those years.
R - From the age of 11, I knew I wanted to draw comic books...and it has taken me 40 years to come to a point where that is all I do now. I'm doing what I've always wanted to do. It's as though you know your path from the day you're born, although sometimes you have to re-find it.
H - It’s like your favorite book, Rex: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but Coelho's basic point is that the treasure you're seeking is found where you started from...though you have to go on a long journey in order to come back there to find it! And that seems like a good place to finish today. Thank you for talking with us, Dharmaruci. One last question: What is your favorite song?
D - ‘Bad Things’ by Jake Everett!
H - Let’s spin that tune...


  1. Another great interview, with much food for thought -- particularly for those of us steeped in mythology in our work. Thanks guys!

  2. Phenomenal post. So much here I relate to and muse about. Thanks!

  3. Fabulous interview. So much to think on. Thanks!

  4. That's a great interview. I've travelled a pilgrimage for reading with DR. So glad the alchemists are back in town!

  5. what a great insightful post. you are all so interesting and the conversation is rich! thanks!

  6. Fascinating stuff, gentlemen, so much to ponder about! I think the 'reality is whatever the collective thinks it is' is a really interesting point. In this modern age we're all so sure that we can be rational, scientific, objective, that there is one 'truth' and we know it, and it often just blinds us to our own biases. Having grown up with that sensibility it is really hard to put aside that skeptical/cynical voice to see the world from a different perspective....I often feel like I have Mulder and Skully arguing in my head (yes, I was an X-Files fan!) "I want to believe" is constantly countered with "Let's look at the facts".

    The idea of collectively created reality is also a very freeing notion I think, it means we CAN change ourselves and things around us. After all, that's how all new ideas come about isn't it, by someone saying 'hang on, things don't have to be like this'?! That in itself is a kind of magic.

    Rex, I envy you, I'm still trying to find the right path for me...trouble is, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up!

  7. Another fascinating interview. One thing, among many, that struck me:

    Your guest talks about how it is common when you're younger to find a teacher or tradition and to give your power away to that - and how it's a necessary part of the learning process to then take ones power back at some point, to believe in yourself and follow your own road.

    It seems to me that this fits in with the thread of the ongoing discussion here about Artistic Influence - which started with artist Didier Graffet, and then moved on to the two blog posts about Influence on Terri's blog and then came back here in the interviews with David Wyatt and Rima Staines (plus discussion of all of the above in the Comments here and on the Drawing Board.)

    I can't remember now which of these people said what but the general idea was that influence is inevitable and maybe even beneficial when you're a young artist/creator but that at some point you have to turn away from the influence of others and believe in yourself and your own unique ideas and strike out on your own, creatively speaking.

    Could this too then perhaps be seen as a kind of "taking back your power"? Your guest's comments have got me thinking that mayve this may be a common part of many people's lives (part of the Mythic Quest, if you will) and not just of artists' lives. When we're young we're absorbing, aborbing, absorbing all these influences around us - artistic and cultural ideas, spiritual ideas, etc. etc. - but at some point you have to leave the safety of the known path and follow your own mind and heart to achieve not only art but a truly authentic life.

    I also really liked the mythological/alchemical side of this discussion - great stuff! - but as my Comment is turning in a Mermaid novel (but without Mermaid's eloquence!) I'll just end by saying again: Thank you, gentlemen. This blog continues to inspire.

    - Jon in L.A., who is not the Real Anonymous

  8. thanks guys and deep respect- especially about taking back your power from those we make masters over us - and, of course, with all the Aries energy heating up our inner warriors. feel like roaring, screaming, being totally frreeeeeee...

  9. very nice interview, its interesting how in perfect timing things seem to happen, i needed to read that, like there's many thigns i just realized that is discussed more in there n elaborated, n i notice this same pattern all the time. Dharmaruci gave me a free reading like 3 years ago and i've been going to his blog ever since, because why? his way of explaining things were just simply very clear or match the way i understand things. am having a major overall life shakeup in a very positive way n the thing about taking power back, to me atleast is very true..... very nice guys, keep it up. peace

  10. an interesting interview to think about as well as the comments following. I agree that it seems to be part of the process to spend time absorbing knowledge and reflecting someone else's wisdom and then standing back from that and formulating one's own thoughts and creations. I also think that the idea of a balance between the scientific inquiry and the intuitive feeling of the world is important. A true scientist is always curious about the world and loves knowledge without having an axe to grind--which we need to understand ourselves. I think that it can get out of hand and invalidate other ways of seeing the world too but both are necessary.

  11. Been thinking about how Reality can become what we think it to be, but that sometimes that is just delusional!

    I think the key idea is the Imagination, the Mundus. As Blake said, Imagination is Reality. The original idea of finding meaning in the heavens, of relating celestial and earthly events, would have been awe-inspiring. Astrology therefore has its roots in the Imagination, and to that extent is real. When that sense of wonder is lost, it becomes merely words and to that extent you could say it has become a delusion!

    And I would apply the same to Science. Think of the awe Copernicus must have felt when he discovered that God had created this elegant Sun-centred solar system, and how divine Reason must be that it could have made this discovery. You take the awe out of it, and put rats through mazes in a lab, and what you have instead is a coherent, but disenchanted, universe; it has a certain logic, but is also a case of the shadows passing Plato’s Cave, that the inhabitants mistake for Reality.

  12. So Reality doesn't reside in a system of knowledge that can be argued about. It is instead something to be perceived when the Imagination is awake. And it has a force that carries people with it, because somewhere we know it to be true, it speaks to us. Astrology as a system can seem barking mad, it seems ridiculous from a certain perspective. So I'm not surprised when people try to dismiss it. But when you see heavenly and earthly events line up, it can touch something primordial and awe-inspiring; the chattering mind is swept aside because you know something real has happened. If you want to make an argument for Astrology, then you need somehow to communicate that sense of awe if you want to get anywhere. 17 days ago, on the last day of Uranus' (sudden disruptive events) 7 year stay in Pisces, a tsunami (the ocean/Pisces) hit Japan. The next day, Uranus' 1st day in fiery Aries, a nuclear plant exploded in Japan as a result of the tsunami.

    And it's the same with the Tarot. On the face of it, it seems ridiculous. But the symbols in it speak to us, and that makes the Tarot real. If the symbols speak to the reader, then what he/she says will be true. It's not something that can be proved; it has to be experienced.

  13. Stimulating discourse that brought to mind an observation by Max Weber during the early 1920’s. Whilst commenting on our so called Enlightened scientific rationale of nature he wrote:
    “As intellectualism suppresses belief in magic, the world’s processes become disenchanted, lose the magical significance and henceforth simply ‘are’ and ‘happen’ but no longer signify anything. As a consequence, there is a growing demand that the world and the total pattern of life be subject to an order that is significant and meaningful.”
    As an aside, I have recently been investigating the works of Paulo Coelho and have just started The Alchemist and so am glad you didn’t give too much away Howard!

  14. The last comment, by one of the Anonymouses (Anonymousi?) reminded me of Thomas Moore's wonderful book "The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life" -- and all his other books, really -- in which he argues for the importance of magic, art, nonlinear ideas, the hidden movements of the soul, etc.. He comes at it from a psychological perspective, but he's well grounded in the ideas of the Renaissance writers, philosophers, and magicians. I love his work.

  15. Anonymice? There is such a word at urbandictionary.com.

  16. As much as I like the 'Anonymice' concept I think it is time for me to own my comments!


  17. The Real Anonymous shall never be revealed.

    Signed: The Real Anonymous

  18. The 3 Anonymouseketeers?! Sorry, that was very bad! Thomas Moore's book sounds fascinating, I'll have to check it out.

  19. If you 'feel' drawn to a particular kind of path, and yet your past and current beliefs 'think' it unreasonable, listen to your heart, mark the date.
    Then begin to live as if it were a true path,
    for a fixed period of time - say 2 yrs. I tried this for astrology. When you live a belief you create your reality to fit. This aspect expands when surrounded by like minded people.
    At the end of 2yrs examine it carefully.
    Is it the path you felt drawn to, do you still think it unreasonable? Maybe it was a stepping stone to who you are.