Austin Spare’s Death Posture has been aired in chaos magic circles quite a bit lately and is widely misunderstood. As far as we know, the best clarification of this technique was published by our good friend and IOT colleague Alan Chapman on the much-missed website The Baptist’s Head. It was republished in the print collection The Blood of the Saints, now out of print and going for silly money, but Alan has given us permission to publish the article again. Thank you Alan.
The Death Posture: A Definitive Instruction by Alan Chapman
Spare’s ‘Death Posture’ is the most misunderstood magical technique in the world. Ever.
The technique is described in The Book of Pleasure (Spare, 2005) and so I sympathise with any initial confusion readers may have concerning the posture; after all. Spare’s writing is demented.
However, a simple re-read of the page in question should be enough to dispel the confusion. I can only surmise from the absolute rubbish presented in many books, magazines and websites as ‘the death posture’ is due to the fact that most people cannot be bothered to read carefully.
The Ritual and Doctrine
The instruction is given in three paragraphs. Here’s how they are printed:
“Lying on your back lazily, the body expressing the condition of yawning, suspiring while conceiving by smiling, that is the idea of the posture. Forgetting time with those things which were essential reflecting their meaninglessness, the moment is beyond time and its virtue has happened.
“Standing on tip-toe, with the arms rigid, bound behind by the hands, clasped and straining the utmost, the neck stretched — breathing deeply and spasmodically, till giddy and sensation comes in gusts, gives exhaustion and capacity for the former.
“Gazing at your reflection till it is blurred and you know not the gazer, close your eyes (this usually happens involuntarily) and visualize. The light (always an X in curious evolutions) that is seen should be held on to, never letting go, till the effort is forgotten, this gives a feeling of immensity… whose limit you cannot reach. This should be practised before experiencing the foregoing. The emotion that is felt is the knowledge which tells you why.” (Spare 2005, p. 18)
It’s obvious, isn’t it? The death posture itself is completely open to interpretation. There is no ‘one’ posture; instead it ranges from holding your breath until you pass out, to staring at yourself in the mirror. And it can be used to ‘charge’ sigils.
Actually: no! What big fat hairy bollocks!
If we re-read these three paragraphs, we see that paragraph two (‘”Standing on tip-toe…”) “…gives exhaustion and capacity for the former.” In other words, it is a preliminary exercise for the instruction given in the first paragraph (“Lying on your back…”). As for the exercise given in paragraph three (“Gazing at your reflection…”), we are told: “This should be practised before experiencing the foregoing.”
Paragraph three is therefore a preliminary exercise to be practised before the instructions given in paragraphs one and two. The death posture proper is therefore given in paragraph one. So, to clarify:
1. Practice staring at your eyes in the mirror, until your reflection looks bizarre. Granted, it doesn’t help at this point when Spare tells you to close your eyes and visualise, and then goes on to describe something you should see (“an X in curious evolutions,” which I propose is the image left on the retina — indeed, there is very similar to a Buddhist exercise), but the point is that you concentrate on something, never letting go, until: “this gives a feeling of immensity… whose limit you cannot reach.”
Spare is quite explicit when he says this must be experienced before practising the death posture proper. In other words, you must have a degree of proficiency in concentration. Knowing Spare’s magical background, I believe he is here describing dhyana.
It should be noted that there is nothing special about this concentration exercise, as Spare explains a little later on: “There are many preliminary exercises, as innumerable as sins, futile of themselves but designative of the ultimate means.” (Spare 2005, p. 18). Once Dhyana is achieved, we can move on to the death posture itself.
2. The death posture requires a degree of relaxation, and to obtain this, you may first strain the whole body and hyperventilate. Of course, you could also go for a run or lift some weights — the aim is to be relaxed for the practise of the posture proper. Just to be explicit: holding your breath until you pass out is not the death posture.
3. So, once a degree of competence in concentration is achieved (i.e. you can enter a state of dhyana, or trance), you can practise the posture proper.
I believe the biggest difficulty with understanding the death posture lies with the fact that Spare appears to be telling us to lie down, yawn, smile and ‘let go’ of all of our worries. But that’s not correct. The posture is indeed lying on your back, relaxed, without a care in the world. However, if you think he is advocating relaxation for its own sake, you’re missing the point. If we take a look at the next paragraph. Spare says:
“…know this as the negation of all faith by living it, the end of the duality of consciousness… Know the death posture and its reality in annihilation of law — the ascension from duality.” (Spare 2005, p. 18)
The aim of the death posture is not to achieve ‘gnosis’ in order to ‘charge’ a sigil, but to experience the non-dual. Spare is talking about samadhi, or the experience of what he called Kia.
Spare elaborates on the practice:
“The primordial vacuity (or belief) is not by the exercise of focussing the mind on a negation of all conceivable things, the identity of unity and duality, chaos and uniformity, etc., etc., but by doing it now, not eventually. Perceive, and feel without the necessity of an opposite, but by its relative. Perceive light without shadow by its own colour as contrast, through evoking the emotion of laughter at the time of ecstasy in union, and by practice till that emotion is untiring and subtle. The law of reaction is defeated by inclusion… Let him practise it daily, accordingly, till he arrives at the centre of desire. He has imitated the great purpose… Thus by hindering belief and semen from conception, they become simple and cosmic.” (Spare 2005, p. 18-9)
The ‘primordial vacuity’, or Kia, is achieved by cultivating an awareness of immediate sensation. For example, instead of experiencing a sensation and knowing it as ‘tight’, simply experience the sensation. The correct mental attitude is that which is experienced when you laugh; you accept all experience and sensation (including the sensation of thoughts) without resistance.
If this attitude of inclusive awareness is cultivated by daily practice, you will eventually experience a state of non-duality and bliss.
The parallels between Spare’s instructions and those of the Buddha are quite striking. The death posture facilitates the same awareness as ‘insight practice’ or vipassana, which can only be practised competently once a degree of proficiency in concentration is achieved.
A Practical Summary
1. Practise concentration exercises until you experience dhyana.
2. Practise being aware of all sensations and experiences as they arise without fixing your attention on or identifying with any one thing. (The correct attitude can be engendered by smiling or laughing.) This is easiest to do when relaxed, so practising after physical exercise is ideal. Alternatively, taking up insight practice, vipassana or Taoist meditation will achieve the same result.
Of the sixteen chapters of The Book of Pleasure, eight deal exclusively with the non-dual or Kia, either expounding the virtues of the pursuit of the non-dual, providing instructions for achieving the non-dual, or detailing the resultant state once the non-dual is achieved and becomes habitual (which Spare calls ‘Self-Love’).
Spare is essentially concerned with hedonism. (I think the title of the book gives that away.) If you want the most ecstasy and pleasure possible, if you want the greatest degree of satisfaction, then you must concern yourself with the non-dual:
“The wise pleasure seeker, having realised they are ‘different degrees of desire’ and never desirable, gives up both Virtue and Vice and becomes a Kiaist. Riding the Shark of his desire he crosses the ocean of the dual principle and engages himself in self- love.”(Spare 2005, p. 1)
Self-love is the state that results from the habitual experience of the non-dual, obtained through practising the death posture every day. It is freedom from desire. Now tell me, which brings the greatest pleasure: using sigils to acquire a magical effect, or the transcendence of all desires?
For a long time. Spare has been feted as the father of ‘Chaos Magic’ and the inventor of Sigil Magic. But his greatest magical achievement, the central teaching of The Book of Pleasure has either been misunderstood as an arbitrary component of sigil magic, or completely ignored as the ramblings of a mystic.
With his death posture. Spare managed to boil down the essence of all meditative practice to a very simple, easy and enjoyable method of genuine magical attainment, and not for any lofty, spiritual purpose, but simply for the sake of pleasure.
If you still think magic has nothing to do with mysticism, or is concerned solely with the manifestation of material results, consider the title of the book responsible for ‘starting it all’: The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy.
Alan references the I-H-O 2005 edition, also going for silly money. Instead, get one of the more reasonably-priced collections of Spare’s writings.