William S. Burroughs was one of the 20th century’s pre-eminent magicians, and spent a lifetime experimenting with obscure techniques for altering consciousness. Here’s his seven favorite occult techniques for destabilizing control and smashing reality.
One of my early magical heroes, who I read obsessively in high school and college, was the author William S. Burroughs.
Burroughs is known not only for his prolific literary output but for his lifelong heroin addiction, as documented in his novel Naked Lunch, a perverse, hallucinatory satire of 1950s America inspired by Burroughs’ addiction, his transient and often grim life, and the visions induced when Burroughs ventured to South America to try to kick heroin by quaffing Ayahuasca. Naked Lunch made Burroughs a household name when it was brought to trial for breaking obscenity laws, and Burroughs won, setting a new precedent for free speech in the US.
Naked Lunch only marked the beginning of William S. Burroughs’ career as a writer, however, and over the coming decades he began to produce stacks of novels aimed at “destablizing control,” created using the cut-up technique he had learned from his occult mentor Brion Gysin, and increasingly engaged in using the techniques of applied magic for breaking the boundaries of 20th century life—as Burroughs and Gysin put it, “storming the reality studio.” This makes Burroughs’ entire output—particularly his non-fiction books The Job and The Third Mind, critical reading for any magician. Burroughs, who dressed not in silly robes but in a sober gray suit, like a Midwestern bank manager, used his appearance to present a striking contrast to his dangerous ideas and the raw, homoerotic, occult chaos of his books.
It’s no wonder he ended up inspiring nearly half a century of counterculture.
By the time I had left college, I had absorbed everything William S. Burroughs had written, and had long since immersed myself in occult experimentation, rifling through the techniques not only of Burroughs and Gysin but of more traditional magick as well. It was only natural that my next step would be meeting Genesis P-Orridge and he/r wife Lady Jaye in Brooklyn—Genesis had studied magick under William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin for years, and it was in part the application of their techniques to music that was responsible for Genesis’ band Throbbing Gristle, and therefore the birth of industrial music.
“Tell me about magick,” I asked Genesis upon our first meeting, just as the young Genesis had asked Burroughs. And so began years of occult training and immersion in the Otherworld of Magick, as I deeply studied applied magick under Genesis (Generation Hex and Thee Psychick Bible were, shall we say, my Master’s and Doctoral Dissertations in “Academy 23,” as Burroughs put it).
So: Of all of Burroughs’ magical techniques (there are hundreds of them), what were his all time best?
Burroughs Technique #1: Do Easy
Burroughs’ most tried and tested technique was the practice of “Do Easy” or “Doing Easy”—that is, re-training your brain to do everything in the fewest number of steps. As Burroughs put it, “[Doing Easy] simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way.” If that sounds overly simplistic, good.
Genesis would later remark that “Doing Easy” was how s/he had been able to put out hundreds of albums, tour nonstop, publish books and continually achieve so much.
For the easiest possible way to absorb this important occult concept, check out Gus Van Sant’s short film explicating the Discipline of Do Easy, above. It could save you years of your life!
Burroughs Technique #2: Dream Control
Burroughs wrote dozens of novels in his career, all of which are filled with incredible, hallucinatory imagery that puts most mainstream science fiction writers to shame.
Some of this imagery was most certainly drawn from Burroughs’ drug experiments, particularly with Ayahuasca. But a lot of it was drawn from his dreams, as well—Burroughs faithfully kept a dream journal (a practice we explore in our online course on lucid dreaming), and pulled material from it to fuel his writing. (He later published some of these journals under the title My Education.)
In the video above, William S. Burroughs explains the art of dream control.
Burroughs Technique #3: The Cut-Up
Central to William S. Burroughs’ life, magick and world view was the Cut-Up, a technique created by his friend and collaborator Brion Gysin from the earlier dada experiments of Tristan Tzara.
Cut-ups are the art of literally cutting up text and images in random fashion and then reassembling them to form new, unexpected patterns. By doing so, Burroughs felt that he could destabilize language and get closer to the truth. This chaos magick technique allowed Burroughs and Gysin to see into the source code of reality, which has been a quest of magicians and alchemists for centuries. It was later adopted by people like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the writer William Gibson—in fact, the cut-up has been used by countless thousands of artists of all persuasions since to spark massive creativity when they hit a wall.
For a guide to using the cut-up method and lots of other occult techniques for unlocking and unleashing creativity, check out our class Magick and Art: Sacred Techniques for a Sacred Quest.
Check out Burroughs and Gysin’s incredible 1966 film The Cut Ups, which viscerally demonstrates the art, above.
Burroughs Technique #4: The Dream Machine
Another Gysin invention that Burroughs adopted and championed was the Dream Machine, a rotating cylinder of light that can induce incredible visions.
Burroughs often wrote of the Dream Machine in his work, and used its effects to generate much of the eidetic imagery that filled his novels. Brion Gysin hoped to mass market his invention, and place it in every home in America instead of a TV set. A noble idea, but it never flew (you can’t run advertisements in a Dream Machine, after all)—in the years and decades since, however, the Dream Machine has attained a cult following. Even Kurt Cobain was a massive fan.
While Dream Machines can be hard to come by, you can build one yourself, for very little money, that works as well as a professionally made model. In fact, Ultraculture has a guide to building a Dream Machine right here.
Burroughs Technique #5: Orgone Accumulation
Another William S. Burroughs fascination was Wilhelm Reich’s orgone energy and orgone accumulators. Reich, a renegade student of Sigmund Freud, believed that he had discovered how to control and harness sexual energy, or “orgone,” and that there were actually particles of sexual energy called “bions.”
Reich was persecuted in the 1950s, his lab was destroyed by the US government, and he was finally thrown in jail (where he died). Burroughs later discovered and championed Reich’s work, even building his own orgone accumulator box—which Burroughs would actually spend large amounts of time sitting in and smoking kif, or crystallized THC, while writing. Burroughs swore by orgone, and used it in his novels as a metaphor for breaking the anti-sex control forces of society.
Just like the Dream Machine, orgone accumulators can be made very easily, cheaply and quickly, so that you can test out Reich’s technology for yourself—Ultraculture has a guide to making an orgone accumulator blanket here!
Burroughs Technique #6: Total Focus on Destabilizing Control
Burroughs brought all of his experiments together into one central task: destabilizing and destroying control.
Like the Gnostics, Burroughs saw the world as essentially a control mechanism or a trap. He saw his goal as utterly breaking and destroying that control system. By control, Burroughs meant the nature of reality itself, and along with his collaborator Gysin, he would accept nothing less than its complete destabilization and destruction. In this, he is one of the clear grandfathers of chaos magick.
The video above is a track from DJ Spooky’s album Rhythm Science, featuring the sublime Scanner aka Robin Rimbaud. It samples the William S. Burroughs describing his five steps for smashing control and consolidating revolutionary gains. They are:
- Proclaim a new era and set up a new calendar.
- Replace alien language.
- Destroy or neutralize alien gods.
- Destroy alien machinery of government control.
- Take wealth and land from individual aliens.
Technique #7: Chaos Magick
Burroughs was not only one of the intellectual forebears of chaos magick, he also seriously practiced its disciplines in the 1980s, immersing himself in the works of Peter Carroll, joining Carroll’s order the Illuminates of Thanateros (Burroughs was buried wearing his chaos star ring from the order), and making constant and disciplined experiments with Carroll’s techniques. Burroughs touched on these experiments in his later novels, particularly his final trilogy, comprised of The Place of Dead Roads, Cities of the Red Night and The Western Lands.
Burroughs’ fascination with chaos magick had carried on from his previous occult experiments with Gysin in Tangiers in the 1950s and 60s and his interest in using the techniques of Buddhist meditation he had learned from the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa in the 70s. In the 80s, Burroughs discovered chaos magick, and found in it a structured discipline that brought his previous experiments together.
Ultraculture’s mission is carrying on the occult traditions that people like Burroughs studied and practiced by offering a free course on chaos magick, which will teach you everything you need to know to start using the same techniques that so fascinated Burroughs to make massive changes in your reality.
You can get the guide here, and start smashing the control machine and liberating yourself from the vice grip of modern life.
Uncle Bill would be proud.