Exploring the Penumbra: First Steps in Sorcery, Part 3

Filling the Boat with Water

The traveler in the penumbra must manage to integrate these strange practices into a reasonably normal life, or he may give the appearance of schizophrenia and wind up in an asylum, like the protagonist of the French film ‘La Vie a l’Envers [Life Upside Down]’. 1 It is probably not possible to avoid a certain appearance of eccentricity, but with circumspection one can avert raising a general alarm.

While sitting in an airport and maintaining peripheral vision I found it was enough to wear dark glasses and hold a magazine in front of my face, turning the pages occasionally, to avoid appearing odd. I called these tricks of protective coloration ‘alibis’.

I saw that every situation affords some opportunity for extending the attention beyond the lumina. In a restaurant it may be revolving shadows cast by a ceiling fan, a convenient thing to gaze at while waiting for one’s order to arrive, while of course maintaining an air of day-dreaming. This ever-present opportunity I called a ‘bindu,’ a Sanskrit word meaning a point from which new creation can emerge. So in every new situation I looked for the bindu and had an alibi ready for camouflage purposes.

This helped me to integrate sorcery into any given moment, but the question of integrating it into my life as a whole remained. I still built up my energy for two or three days and then wasted it through anger, worry, or mild obsession. I enjoyed the fluid lightness of continuous sensation, but could only save up just so much energy, since my thinking mind found so many ways to squander most of it. Accessing the energy, then, wasn’t enough; I had to find a way to save it and store it up if I wanted to make progress.

An eastern teaching says we are like leaky vessels; we should find the leaks and plug them before filling the vessel with water. This means correcting bad habits and purifying oneself ethically before opening the door to psychic development.

Exploring the penumbra, however, is like filling an old boat with water to find the leaks. The explorer saturates mind and body with the energy of the penumbra and then quietly observes what his personality does with the increased energy. The eastern

teaching is prudent, and the explorer should bear in mind that filling the boat with water can be risky at first until you know where your big leaks are. Although adventures can be therapeutic they also contain dangers. To protect themselves, seasoned travelers travel lightly, simplifying their lives by eliminating useless possessions, opinions, commitments, relationships, clutter of all sorts. Greater openness to sensations makes the explorer seek silence and solitude, and cutting down on distractions makes it easier to spot energy leaks and plug them.

After the leaks are plugged and the hull is caulked, the old boat can be launched into the sea of the unknown.


Upon awakening, not putting on the light right away, but lying quietly, slipping gradually from sleep to waking. Watching the lights on the inside of the eyelids. Slowly beginning the camera, fluttering the eyelids open every third breath or so. After this getting up and moving around, keeping the attention in the penumbra for a few more moments.

Driving to work around dawn, watching the long shadows of trees fall across the face like weightless waves, shadow-surf. The eyes seem to feel things.

Noon, cars gliding by on their shadows like carpets fixed to the wheels, yet the wheels roll over them just the same, a visible contradiction.

Swimming slowly across the pool, watching unrepeatable detail, lights wriggling like phosphorescent worms along the bottom, how light this body, how long the breath can be held!

Restaurants are excellent for peripheral listening, even better in the evening, by a window or in a glassed-in patio, mixing reflections with listening. Ocean of conversations all together, surging and falling to a great tide.

Lights at night, exquisite when the mind is quiet. Reflections of the interior mingled with views of the night outside. This mind wants to see either the reflections or the night, so watch them both. Headlights of cars beyond the inlet moving across the forehead of that woman eating at the next table wearing a streetlamp behind her left ear.

In the evening listening to distant sounds, letting my ears travel to the limits of the night, echoing fugitive noises until the dark flows back into my mind and the night is inside and all around me.

Late at night, off with the reading lamp, shutting the eyes, falling-asleep thoughts mingling with phosphenes. Those vague lights and patterns will be woven into dream images. My day begins and ends with this book that only I can read.


“I’ve always got some tune or other going through my head,” my father said.

Minor obsessions like tunes that stick in the head waste a lot of energy but can be dispelled by blending them with sounds heard in the moment. Begin by echoing sounds a moment after they occur. Let the pace quicken on its own, until you are echoing sounds immediately upon hearing them. Now listen to the tune and the echo together as though they were a duet, like one of John Cage’s chance compositions.

The mind will find a rhythm common to them and they will sound as though they were keeping together within it. Presently, the inner tune will be absorbed into the outer sound, and only the outer will remain.

Mental tunes and inner talking can also be absorbed into visual movement. Watch how things move, observe their rhythm and let the mind blend with it.

When I am sleepless or otherwise caught up with obsessive thoughts, I can blend them with the rhythm or sound of my breathing, the way sitar music blends with the droning tamboura in the background.

If I try to suppress thoughts, they will only grow stronger; so instead I blend them like tunes into external sounds, letting them reverberate and die away on their own. The solution to these small dilemmas can be found in this moment of sensation.

Sometimes, when I am upset about something I can’t do anything about for the present, I begin obsessively repeating what I am going to say when the time comes. Pointless rehearsing, as opposed to intelligent planning, is a major energy leak in the hull of my boat.

At other times, dissatisfied with my response or role in a situation recently past, I will begin rehashing the situation over again, seeking to look better in my own eyes; or else I will hug to myself some quick response I made that drew laughter or applause. Either way, I waste a lot of energy in my obsessive concern over how I appear to others.

Like all trains of thought, the rehash and the rehearsal can be blended into sounds just heard, or into visual sensations. The echo, in conjunction with other explorations, lets me build up enough energy to sidestep the rehearsal and rehash before they capture my attention.

The wake of the moment just past often contains a ready-made synopsis of my life’s ongoing story. Maintaining a running story-line for my life and worrying over the plot is a full-time job and engages most of my energy.

If I blend the synopsis with sounds of the present moment my story starts

to fade, and is eventually replaced with a series of timeless pictures, like the calm

colored illustrations by Clement Hurd to Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book

Goodnight Moon. 2

These pictures convey the feeling of immediacy enjoyed by very small children. Here is a small rabbit saying good-night to all his familiar companions: chairs, a red balloon, the moon in the window. This ‘great green room’ must be his first room, where everything began for him; only this is near the beginning and his story hasn’t really started yet. Instead there is a series of timeless moments, each complete in itself. Everything fits together and makes sense the way pictures make sense, but the moments following each other do not add up to a story because there is no plot and no synopsis.


When my second son was little, we used to take evening walks. On the way home one night suddenly we both looked at the moon. “It’s following us home,” I said, with that slight twinge of guilt parents feel when they’re lying about Santa Claus. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed this for years, probably since being told it was an illusion.

Here was an experience usually ignored, like the shadow carpets of moving cars or the fuzzy sensations that are all I can see of my head without a mirror. These sensations, rejected once we ‘knew better,’ are doors into the penumbra. I decided to call them ‘mirages,’ because like desert mirages they tend to melt away when we suddenly see through them.

The mind’s proclivity for placing unrelated sounds in some sort of rhythmic pattern, so that all the conversations in a restaurant, for instance, seem to swell and fall in a great tidal pulse, was mentioned earlier. In the preceding section its usefulness for stopping mild obsessions by ‘blending’ them into external sounds was described. These explorations make use of the energy locked up in mirages.

When out walking on a windy day, attend to the wind in rhythm with your breathing. Don’t try to control your breathing, but follow the sound and feeling of breathing while listening to the wind as though it were the breathing of some enormous animal. Breathe with the wind, then breathe in response to the wind.

When clouds are packed up in more than one layer, look at one cloud and reverse it with the cloud in back or in front of it, switching figure and ground. This one is from my brother, a field surveyor. [W.W.]

The ancient Norse seeking their farmstead idols collected stumps and rocks and such that seemed to have faces carved in them by nature. 3 These were regarded as beings trying to emerge from stock or stone, and were carved and decorated just enough to help them come out. Like the Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, they looked for hidden faces in things.

We look at faces differently from mere objects, because faces look back. The explorer finds faces in wood grain, clouds or foliage and looks, then gazes at them as if they were faces looking back, without believing or disbelieving that they are. This is a good follow-up to the camera or echo, and augments or fine-tunes their effect.

Watching phosphenes leads to a feeling of being asleep while knowing one is awake. The next two mirages also play with the border between sleeping and waking and result in strong surges of energy accompanied by strange feelings.

When it is difficult to dispel the feeling of a dream, or if you simply recall the flavor of some dream, whether recent or from long ago, project its feeling into the current waking situation; that is, look for qualities or features similar to the dream and blend them with your memory of its mood or atmosphere. Pretend the dream is happening right now and you are temporarily aware that you are dreaming.

When you have actually had a lucid dream and can remember how it felt, project that feeling into the present waking moment and look at everything as though you were back in that dream. As lucid dreamers know, anything in a dream is a potential distraction that can make the dreamer lose his lucidity, so you want to look at things warily, without being drawn into them. Once you are drawn in you will forget you are dreaming and it will become an ordinary dream again. If you do this while awake, you will receive a strong jolt of energy.

We have a major energy investment tied up in the isolation of dreams from waking reality, which makes it very difficult for most people to become lucid dreamers. I will conclude by considering this barrier to lucid dreaming, and how it might be overcome through a mirage.

Lucid Dreaming and Lucid Waking

Cultures that accord a measure of reality, and therefore of importance, to dreams offer the advantage of providing a contrast to waking moments. Consequently, the members of those cultures are more aware of the fact that they are awake in their waking moments, just as they tend more often to be aware that they are dreaming in their dreaming moments.

Cultures like ours that tacitly dismiss the reality, and therefore the importance,

of dreams offer no contrast to waking moments. Consequently, the members of cultures like ours tend to forget they are awake or dreaming when either is the case, getting caught up instead in the plot of a running story-line, whether of the dream or of their waking lives.

When dreams become lucid, the dreamer realizes “Now I am dreaming. This is a dream.” The dreamer can stand back from the dream-story and change the dream’s course. Our language has no term for the waking state corresponding to the word ‘dream’, and a ‘wake’ means an all-night vigil by a corpse; so I will use the word ‘waking’ to mean a sequence of experiences between waking up and falling asleep again. Now we can say that when wakings become lucid, the waker realizes “Now I am awake. This is a waking.” The waker can then stand back from the waking-story and change the waking’s course in ways that are impossible for the non-lucid waker. Instead of tinkering with the plot of our running story-line, we want to step out of it altogether, because ‘the more it changes, the more it remains the same’.

To step outside the plot of my waking-story, I must be truly aware that I am awake when I am awake; just as to step outside the plot of my dream-story, I must be truly aware that I am dreaming when I dream. Neither state is possible without the other. To wake lucidly, I must begin to see all this that is happening now as a waking, not simply take it tacitly as reality. And to do this, I must restore the dream to its own reality, its own importance in my life. Whether dreaming or waking, I must take nothing for granted and accept every experience as important and relevant to my life as a whole.


Books and films referenced in the text. I list the editions I use, including works I own by authors cited in the text or footnotes.

BROWN, Margaret Wise, Goodnight Moon, pictures by Clement Hurd. Harper and Row,


CASTANEDA, Carlos, The Teachings of Don Juan; a Yaqui Way of Knowledge. New York, Ballantine Books, fifteenth printing, 1973.

________________, A Separate Reality; Further Conversations with Don Juan. New York, Simon and Schuster, second printing, 1971.

________________, Journey to Ixtlan; the Lessons of Don Juan. New York, Simon and Schuster, first paperback edition, 1973.

COLLINGWOOD, R. G., The New Leviathan, on Man, Society, Civilization and Barbarism. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1958.

DAVIDSON, H. R. Ellis, Pagan Scandinavia. New York: F.A. Praeger, 1967.

HARDING, D. E., On Having No Head; Zen and the Re-discovery of the Obvious. London and New York, Arkana, 1986.

JESSUA, Alain, “Life Upside Down [La Vie a l’Envers].” Film, French, Connoisseur Videos, 1965. Written and directed by Alain Jessua.

WITTGENSTEIN, Ludwig, Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London, New York: Routledge, 1990.


Alibi: An activity or prop designed to camouflage exploring the penumbra in a public or social situation.

Bindu: An opportunity, or the best opportunity available, for placing the attention in the penumbra in the present moment; every moment contains at least one bindu.

Blending: Paying attention to two sensations at a time, noting especially similarities in rhythm between them, whether audible or visible rhythm. Where one of the sensations is mental and the other external, the purpose of blending is to let the latter absorb the former.

Camera: Shutting the eyes and, at intervals, opening and shutting them again fairly rapidly.

Echo: Mentally reproducing sounds just heard, or visual rhythms just seen.

Flickerings or Pre-thoughts: Impulses to thought that enter awareness at the visual periphery and are experienced there as perturbations of attention.

Gazing: Spreading the attention to the side, or above or below, of wherever the eyes are pointing.

Gazing from the side: Directing the eyes to the side, or above or below, an object while spreading the attention to the object itself.

Gazing to the side: Directing the eyes at an object while spreading the attention to the side, or above or below, that object.

Headless gazing: Keeping the attention on what little we can see of our heads without using a reflecting surface.

Looking: Directing the attention to wherever the eyes are pointing.

Lucid dream: A dream in which the dreamer realizes he or she is dreaming; often experienced in the course of waking up.

Lucid waking: A waking experience in which one has a heightened sense of being awake in the present moment, accompanied by a sense of separation from one’s personal story or ‘synopsis’ (q.v.).

Lumina: That mental space used for both thinking and looking.

Mirages: Sensory illusions that provide energy so long as we experience them without ‘seeing through’ them. i.e., while suspending disbelief.

Not-Doing: Performing an everyday act in an unusual way; doing what you don’t usually do, and/or not doing what you usually do. A full act of not-doing will involve both simultaneously. A term coined (or transmitted) by Carlos Castaneda in his books, beginning with Journey to Ixtlan.

Penumbra: That mental space used for gazing at things seen to the side, or above or below, of wherever the eyes are pointing; that mental space used for listening to background sounds or attending to other background sensations or memories.

Peripheral sensations: Any sensations, including memories, that are available to attention but generally ignored.

Periphery: The limits of the visual field, only indirectly perceivable; analogously, the limits of the other senses.

Phosphenes: The visual impressions we get when pressure from the eyelids (or some other source) is applied to the retina.

Pre-thoughts: See Flickerings or Pre-thoughts.

Rehash: A mental review of a previous conversation or situation.

Rehearsal: An anticipation of a future conversation or situation.

Spirit candle: Crossing the eyes while looking at two candles of the same size and shape but different colors, making a third apparent candle between them; the apparent candle itself.

Spirit door: Crossing the eyes while looking at a candle, making two apparent candles with a space between them; the space between the candles.

Spirit wind: A mental and physical experience similar to flying, resulting from prolonged practice of the echo with some other exploration, such as watching eyeglass frames.

Synopsis: A running story-line of one’s life, the thing we refer to when answering the question “How are you doing?”.

Thinking: Talking to oneself mentally.

Tracking: Letting the attention follow the eyes as they move deliberately from one object to another.

Umbra: That mental space which registers the existence of objects beyond the current limits of sensation, such as objects in back of the head; or of objects which turn with the head and so remain out of view yet somehow make their presence felt.

Waking: Waking experience, regarded as a mental event different from, but on a par with, dreaming.

Wall vision: Opening the eyes minimally, as Zen Buddhists do while meditating in front

of a wall.

Wordless knowledge: New awareness of something that previously has gone unnoticed, and for which we therefore lack a name.

Index of Explorations

In some cases these explorations are given a name in the text, in others I provide a short description. The numbers following the entry refer to page and paragraph.

Blending all conversations in a restaurant together, 21.5

breath with the wind, 24.4

distant night sounds together, 21.7

effects of an exploration with silence afterwards, 8.2

falling-asleep thoughts with phosphenes, 21.8

mental tunes with sounds, 22.2

mental tunes with visual sensations, 22.3

peripheral listening with gazing at reflections, 21.5

phosphenes with dream images, 21.8

phosphenes with sounds, 16.7

reflections in a window with things seen through the window, 21.6

thoughts with background sensations, 8.2, 8.5

thoughts with breathing, 22.4

thoughts with sounds or visual sensations, 22.3, 22.5, 22.8, 23.1

rehash with sounds or visual sensations, 22.8

rehearsal with sounds or visual sensations, 22.8

synopsis with sounds or visual sensations, 23.1

Blinking, long, 14.7

Camera, 14.1 – 14.6

before a changing scene, 14.2

swing, 14.6

varying number of breaths, 14.5

varying shutter speed, 14.5

while walking, 14.3

with crossing the eyes unfocused, 17.2

with looking at phosphenes, 16.4

Crossing the eyes, focused, 17.3 – 17.7

with one candle, 17.3 – 17.6. The spirit door.

with two candles, 17.7 The spirit candle.

with three or more candles and mirrors, 18.1

Crossing the eyes, unfocused, 17.1

preliminary relaxation, 17.1

with the camera, 17.2

Echo, 12.1 – 12.3, 12.7

as companion or feedback signal, 12.7

delayed, 12.2, 22.1

flying on the, 12.3 – 12.7, 13.1. The spirit wind.

immediate, 12.2, 22.1

in a group circle, 13.2

prevents compulsive thinking, 22.8

used in a blending, 22.1

with gazing at eyeglass frames, 12.3

Eyelids, widening and narrowing the, 15.1

Gazing at eyeglass frames, 9.4

at foliage, 6.5

at hidden faces, 25.3, 25.4

at reflections, 6.5

at revolving ceiling fan reflections, 19.3

at shadows, 6.5

at shadow carpets of cars, 6.5, 21.3, 24.2

at shadow surf, 21.2

at the periphery, 9.2, 9.3

at unrepeatable detail, 21.4

from the side, 6.4, 17.6

general, 6.5

headless, 10.1, 10.2

to the side, 6.2 – 6.4, 17.6

with peripheral listening, 6.5, 9.4

with the echo, 12.3

Looking at phosphenes. See Phosphenes, looking at.

Looking, peripheral, 5.3, 5.4


gazing at hidden faces, 24.6, 24.7

headlessness, 24.2

moon as companion, 24.1

projecting the feeling of a dream, 25.2

projecting the feeling of a lucid dream, 25.3

shadow carpets of cars, 24.2

switching figure and ground with cloud layers, 24.5

wakings, 26.3, 26.4

wind as breath, 24.4

Peripheral feeling, 5.3

gazing, 5.4

listening, 5.2, 5.4

listening and gazing, 6.5, 9.4

looking, 5.3, 5.4

memory, 5.5, 11.2 – 11.4

Phosphenes, following the changes in, 16.3

looking at, 16.2 – 16.7, 25.1

switching figure and ground, 16.3

tracking from side to side, 16.5

with the camera, 16.4

with the echo, 16.7

Savoring the moment just past, 8.2

See Blending: effects of an exploration with silence afterwards

thoughts with background sensations

Sensing everything at once, 5.2, 7.1, 9.2, 9.5, 14.6, 17.1

Spirit wind, the, 12.3 – 12.7, 13.1 See Echo, flying on the

Tracking, by tensing eye muscles, 14.5

phosphenes, 16.5

test for, 9.5

using a mirror, 9.5

Wall vision, 16.6

1 Jessua, Alain, writer and director. See bibliography.

2 Brown, Margaret Wise. See bibliography.

3 Davidson, H.R. Ellis, Pagan Scandinavia. See bibliography.