Here's a follow-up to my last post, Telepathy. Consider this Part 2 of my series on Mundane Occultism aka Everyday Magick.
I’m a little obsessed with William S. Burroughs.
This image doesn’t even include The Western Lands trilogy, which is sitting among my to read piles. And that copy of Naked Lunch that’s wrapped in plastic? It’s signed by the man himself.
You don’t need to read too deep into Burroughs before you start finding links to magical practice. It’s rarely explicit, but you’ll find it there, hidden beneath his obsession with control. There were his experiments with text and tape recorder cut-ups, which he conducted with the aim of affecting the reality track (by, for example, cutting sounds of a riot into the normally peaceful hum of the city street), or upsetting the signal of control (by cutting up and breaking down media broadcasts), and there are even reports which suggest he was adept at crafting curses. But waging a one-man war against totalitarian control is hardly “mundane”, and if you feel the need to craft curses every day, I worry about what kind of life you’re leading. So instead, let’s look at the other magickal tool Burroughs gave to us, stuck hiding within the stories and routines collected in Exterminator! - Do Easy.
So that we can all play along at home, here’s a link to The Discipline of DE, which includes the short film by Gus Van Sant (which I believe he made while at film school).
DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in DE.
Normally when you hear about mindfulness, it’s in regards to relaxation and meditation, but with Do Easy Burroughs lays out a philosophy of physical mindfulness. Mindfulness might tell you to allow whatever thoughts that pass through your head to have their moment, to let them occur and then move on, without judging yourself or your thoughts. It’s a method of becoming aware of your thoughts without getting caught up in them. Similarly, Do Easy is a method of remaining aware of the objects you interact with so that you do not get caught up in them in a manner that has you dropping glasses, spilling sugar, or bashing your elbow on cupboards. It’s about carefully considering every object and item in your home, your kitchen, your workspace, and bedroom, in particular the ways you do (or do not) interact with them so that you can carry out repetitive actions with minimum effort and maximum efficiency.
(Maximum efficiency? Honestly, there’s a million-dollar book idea in expanding on DE for the Silicon Valley types, but then you’d be writing one of those books, and being featured on all sorts of lifestyle sites, and having to make appearances on daytime TV shows, and who has the time or patience for that?)
Once you begin to consider DE, you realise just how many actions you make without thought. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing - indeed, the point of DE is to get to a stage where you can do things without thought, but also without mishap - but it does highlight how often we move through our spaces and lives on auto-pilot, not properly considering our actions and the meaning behind them.
In particular I like this remedy for clumsiness:
When you put down a cup separate your fingers cleanly from the cup. Do not let them catch in the handle and if they do repeat the movement until fingers separate clean. If you don’t catch that nervous finger that won’t let go of that handle you may twitch hot tea across the Duchess.
Repeating an action that you just failed might seem like a waste of time, and more than likely you’ll feel silly in the moment, but it specifically forces you to consider what happened and why it didn’t lead to the outcome you wanted.
Another thing I realised on my most recent reading of The Discipline of DE, is how it suggests a sort of proto-OOO. Object Oriented Ontology (to put it as simply as possible) is a philosophy that considers objects as being of equal importance to humans. It rejects our anthropocentric obsession and (to my mind) allows room for us to consider animals, stones, rivers, mountains, glaciers, etc as necessary and important parts of the world instead of resources for us to use and abuse in our quest for dominion. (I call DE proto-OOO though because in Burroughs’ philosophy in general, the universe is a hostile place, and so here he imbues his objects with a sort of malice that needs to be actively countered through the practice of DE. Proper OOO is far more neutral.)
It doesn’t take long to internalise DE and find yourself using it around the house. In particular I find it useful in the kitchen - considering exactly what you need from which cupboard, and taking things and replacing them with a minimum of effort. I also use DE on the street (almost exactly as Burroughs outlined it), though not with the Zen-like calmness that he seems to suggest throughout the piece. I am both unable to walk at a reasonable pace or stop myself from getting unreasonably irritated by slow walkers and people who sort of meander all over the path, stopping you from easily passing. And I also use DE as a guiding principal for errands - for instance, going to the chemist on my way home from the physio instead of making a second journey a few days later when I will need to. And this is what I mean by “internalise” - I don’t think about DE, I forget about it for months at a time, but still I organise things in a way that lines up with the philosophy.
(And if you’re wondering why/how this counts as occultism… Well, magickal systems - whatever flavour of which you want to explore - are all about having, or feeling as though you have, greater control over your life. They involve discipline and ritual (in either sense of the word), and use tools like divination to allow you to consider pathways that you might not have considered before. DE is literally about having greater control of your life, right down to the minutiae. But, hey, if it makes you feel any better, you can wear a wanky wizard’s robe while you practice DE for the full occult experience.)
So I consider myself a somewhat novice disciple of DE, but recently I’ve noticed this decades-old lesson coming up against the very modern gamification of everything as represented by the evil FitBit. Now, full disclosure: I don’t have a FitBit, but I’m using it as shorthand because “the step counting Samsung exercise app on my phone” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Each day I aim to walk at least 6,000 steps (the default/suggested amount was 5,000, but I hate myself, so I bumped it up). To hit 6,000 steps I need to walk approximately 5km - which means walking for 40-50 minutes, plus the meandering back and forth I do at home throughout the day. And this is exactly what I’m talking about. If DE is about minimising the amount of action required to perform basic tasks around the house, this step-counting encourages the exact opposite. Do I carefully consider everything I need from the other end of the house and carry those things in one deliberate arm-load, or do I gladly walk back and forth two or three times (whether by choice or because I forgot something) because those extra journeys will earn me more steps? The worst part is I find that I’ll quietly berate myself for walking to the kitchen without my phone in my pocket because I missed out on those additional steps. (Admittedly this berating is as much a depression issue as anything else.)
It might seem like the most minor thing, but for years now I’ve been aware of this lizard brain weakness that tech and UI designers have been making use of. I first noticed it with in-game Achievements on the Xbox 360. I would find myself investing extra hours in games just to achieve those worthless nothing cheevs, and even playing games I didn’t enjoy just to rack up more pointless points. That little Achievement pop-up sounds gave me a dopamine hit that I’ve never had rivalled by social media notifications. It took me a while to wean myself off the cheevs, but I still find those little hooks getting in under my skin all the time. With the step-counting it’s different though - it’s less of an artificial dopamine hit, and more of a genuine feeling of achievement; it’s attached to exercise after all. I’m improving myself. I’m working on my health, fitness, and mental health. That is all fine. But the low-key manipulation of my actions in direct contrast to the teachings of DE is irritating me, precisely because I can not help myself.
But I think this is exactly why DE is worth considering (million-dollar book idea!), because it offers us tools to push back against these countless encroachments on our time and our desire. By applying the lessons of DE to not just cleaning up around the house, but to the ways we interact with technology, we’ll become better aware of the hooks and loops embedded in these devices and apps to keep us using them in the ways They want, rather than the ways we want. FitBit isn’t the villain here, it’s just a clear example I can point to, and in particular it shows the ways that seemingly “healthy” tools can be used to gently nudge us toward unhealthy behaviour. Fuck, I could go on a rant about the gamification of reading through goo dreads, and how it almost ruined reading for me (and constantly threatens to push me down that path again). But I can’t stop using it because my memory is terrible and I couldn’t tell you what I’d read last week without having that reminder there.
And that’s the real kicker. It’s not about disconnecting from every app and service out there - it’s about (re)considering everything you do and use to ensure that these are worthy uses of your time and energy. Some of them will be, or could be with some adjustments. Some of them will reveal themselves to be the dread hanger across the wastebasket of your life.
So if you have to do it, Do Easy…