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The Problem of Projection

As my readers can probably tell, I’ve lately been pondering on how our spiritual experiences bear on our earthly lives in practical terms. Sri Ramana Maharshi has become a helpful model for me in this regard because he was very clear in teaching people that we should trust in the basically spiritual nature of things (God) and that we should therefore avoid interference into the affairs of others as far as possible, but that where our earthly responsibilities (karma) link up with the lives of others we must take those seriously as our part in the play (dharma). When asked pointed questions about how to enact nondual experience in the world, he responded equally directly that we should not “enact” nondualism at all; it is ever the reality of the situation in any case, and we do more good by behaving dualistically from a place of nondual realization.

I recently posted this news story on Facebook along with the following commentary:

This, like many of our present and ongoing tragedies, is a series of human choices. Somebody had to make these choices; someone else had to approve it; many others had to enact it. How many believed what they did was “for the greater good”? How many questioned it but said nothing, did not resist their illegitimate orders, went ahead with what they knew to be a grave act of violence?

Here is spiritual disease at work: dukkha generates dukkha; kleshas fuel karma which forms conditioned patterns which support kleshas; sins generate sins, rolling like waves into more and more lives. We cure the disease in ourselves individually, but only by realizing that selfhood is not at all what we thought it was — that there’s no such thing as an individual. And when we really understand that, we cannot fail to treat others better because, after all, there are no others. We frame these things as “partisan politics” at our own great peril; there aren’t two equally valid teams on whether or not we treat one another humanely.

For me, this sequence of thoughts arose directly out of this mind of mine which has been spending an increasing amount of time in nondual meditation. I don’t claim unique divine inspiration nor any sort of exalted spiritual state. For me, there is only an increasing adjustment to the experience of life from this Center; some days I seem to be “there” more than others, and I can usually tell the difference in a pretty clear way. But that is, admittedly, purely subjective. How do I know to what degree I’m projecting my own socio-political beliefs through the lens of nondual philosophy rather than allowing my ideas of how to live arise organically out of nondual experience? In other words, is there a “right” way to think, a “correct” set of beliefs, apart from my own thinking and believing?

It is notable to me that every major spiritual tradition in the world places emphasis on certain fundamental social goods: we should, as far as possible, do no harm to one another. This is articulated differently and extended further by some compared to others, but the fundament does not differ. Some spiritual traditions have more concrete notions on what constitutes a good, just, or godly society, but most don’t go into a lot of detail about it at all or provide such contradictory advice that it quickly becomes clear that all such models are either addendums or simply situational. We cannot depend on these any more than we can claim absolute value for modern systems like capitalism, socialism, democracy, and the like. We do best to cherry pick any tradition of social or political theorizing to fit our circumstances while continuing to innovate based on current need and the core value of harmlessness. But, again, they all seem to agree on the reality of a “common good” (something which the most common and influential of modern secular schools do not, in favor of theoretical “social contracts” and projected “self interest”) and on some sort of ground-level unity or at least non-difference emphasizing the interdependence of individuals.

Though I would argue that most of these spiritual traditions actually begin with the nondual experience of their founders (or of generations of influential individuals within a culture where there is no unique founder), many of them do not immediately preach nonduality. Simply put, this is because many people aren’t comfortable with the implications of nonduality, so a broad interdependence, community spirit, or affection are promoted as core values encouraging mutual trust, spiritual optimism, and charity. Though the founders, reformers, and highest representatives of these traditions always express these in the most sweeping, trans-sectarian, trans-communal of language, increasing institutionalization after their deaths more often than not shrink the scope of the message to simply “this tribe” or “the faithful”. The happiest and most peaceful — and, so, most successful — societies, too, seem to be the ones with common good at their heart rather than abstract systems, social contracts, or Leviathans.

None of this is intended to be utopian; for so long as the bulk of individuals in a community think, speak, and act from klesha (which I use coterminously with dukkha and sin for those more comfortable with Buddhist or Christian language), there will be problems. But many of those problems can be mitigated by acknowledging klesha overtly and the clear and observable existence of a common good; this way, we short circuit repression and oppression, perhaps not ruling them out entirely but depriving them of their full fuel. Though, for instance, we should certainly not be pining for a return to the feudalism of Europe, Japan, or India, we can at least acknowledge once we set aside modern market-driven prejudices that there were certain mutual responsibility loops within those societies which made even kings immediately dependent upon the explicit cooperation of other social layers which literally cannot exist in the modern nation-state.*

Each of us is individually responsible for our own dukkha — our own frustration, lack, and existential angst arising from our deep ignorance of the nature of our Self. No person or — and here’s the crux — institution can do away with it for us. Even in theistic modalities like Natha Yoga, contemplative Christianity, or Jewish mysticism, a certain impetus and effort must come from our end or we can’t be helped. For some yogis and mystics, this translates to a need for removal from the broader society (either occasional or permanent). But for others, it necessitates an overhauled or regenerated engagement with society and with the individuals whose web of relationships make it up.

When the teachings say we need to reduce our fascination with the things of this life, it does not mean that we should abandon them completely. It means avoiding the natural tendency to go from elation to depression in reaction to life’s ups and downs, jumping for joy when you have some success, or wanting to jump out the window if you do not get what you want. Being less concerned about the affairs of this life means assuming its ups and downs with a broad and stable mind.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “The Heart of Compassion”

Even this “new approach” can not and will not be identical for everyone. This may sound strange when speaking nondualistically, but nondualism doesn’t imply a unity of appearances, only of the Being which shows forth as the appearances. But there are some common threads which can be teased out, and they’ve already largely been summarized above.

How does all of this relate to projection? Well, the fact is that we are projecting constantly. One wouldn’t be out of line in saying that projection is the closest thing to “creation” allowed by the nondual experience. Ramana Maharshi put it that the absolute truth is that nothing ever arose and nothing ever subsides; there is no creation or destruction of the universe, only the mistaken recognition of the universe as separate from oneself and/or from God (that is to say, from Awareness which is identical both to the individual and to God) and this misapprehension makes it seem as if creation, change, and destruction have happened and will happen again.

Of course, some projections are more thorough than others. The world itself is a massive, shared projection, while certain religious, moral, and political views (for example) are private projections which nevertheless impact the shape the world takes. These latter are the projections we’re asking about when we wonder whether our beliefs are “true” or merely preferences.

Certainly it can be helpful to ask those questions of ourselves, even of our most cherished values. It keeps us grounded and both signifies and encourages genuine humility. But we mustn’t get caught up in them. Our beliefs about the world are themselves “worldly” — which is to say, we’re letting ourselves get dragged a few layers deep into mental projection before we even get started. We must instead fight for the surface to catch our breaths.

When I spoke above about allowing our viewpoints and behavior to be shaped by the nondual experience (as opposed merely to nondual philosophy), what I meant was just this: we have to learn to view our own beliefs from a higher angle in which we see them not only as our own projections upon the world but in which we also see the whole world-system itself as a projection. While we may not be able to maintain this perspective all the time (not at first, anyway), having had the experience even once and keeping it in mind will already begin dissolving the knots of tension between ourselves and the world. Our beliefs will invariably change as a result.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve seen my own political and social views soften considerably. My fundamental values have broadened rather than changed, and I have seen this happen with others as well. Those who began as ardent nationalists come to define their “neighbors” as a larger group than just their compatriots; those who were humanists will catch glimpses of sentience in places they did not expect; and the deeply religious will spot God in all forms rather than only church-approved icons. And so on. Your karma will still determine a certain bias — for as long as you are in a human body, some karma and conditioning will ride in your brain even if you were able to bump it from business class to coach — but that bias will be more easily recognized for what it is. Our philosophical projections will not therefore go away all at once, but they will lose their grasp over us finger by finger. In practical terms, this means that we will not knee-jerk so frequently or with as much force and will be able to respond more and react less. We have to make decisions about what we do and do not value, and how how our actions will accord with those decisions, but the more lightly we hold these thoughts the more able we are to adjust to new information or experiences.

Though what we believe can certainly cause trouble, even this is a symptom of how we believe. When we evaluate events in the world according to our own expectations, we are only viewing them through the lens of our own limited self-identity. When we allow our gaze to widen, we may not fully escape the danger of projection but we certainly mitigate it by attacking the root rather than the branch.

*For a full discussion of this topic, see David R. Loy’s A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack (2002, SUNY)

Duty In the Dream

Duty is a tough nut. Most of us are not such big fans of responsibility. As a result, there’s a common discussion in contemporary spiritual and occult circles about so-called “spiritual bypassing”. The conversation is a useful one, and everyone should at various points do a bit of introspection in relation to it. But it is not a brand new topic! The mystics of every age have had to wrestle with the specter of Quietism: Just how much should a practitioner be involved in the events of the world? What is the yogi’s responsibility to family, community, and nation? Does the saint need to do more than be saintly? I brought this topic up recently, but wanted to explore it in a bit more detail and hopefully make it a little more practical.

The great Chan teacher Hongzhi Zhengjue was accused by his friend and fellow Dharma Teacher Dahui Zonggao of encouraging quietism and laziness (“playing dead”) among his students due to Hongzhi’s emphasis on Silent Illumination (or “just sitting”, to translate Japan’s terse but poetic term for the practice). Silent Illumination is simply the meditative practice of reversing the lantern of awareness to face inward toward its own source rather than outward toward thoughts and sense objects. Dahui preferred koan practice because it was active and could be taken into daily life by anyone, monk or layperson alike; koan, argued Dahui, relies on the reflection of old canonical stories within the experience of the individual disciple. By contrast, the private meditation of Silent Illumination forced one “outside” of the world — something not everyone is equipped for, for lack of training and/or time, and something which makes performing one’s responsibilities for society at large difficult.

Dahui’s argument was not actually directed at his friend Hongzhi, however, but at those among his students and successors who failed to enact Hongzhi’s full instruction. Hongzhi emphasized the Sōtō teaching of “Harmony” which, in philosophical terms, is the dialectic between the universal and the particular. For him, the full flowering of Silent Illumination came only after the practitioner not only experienced the Illumination itself but maintained that awareness and enacted it compassionately in daily life. In other words, one must still do one’s business (whatever that is) but will do it with greater depth and humanity once the vertical and horizontal axes have been fully integrated. While this accomplishment may require times of withdrawal, there cannot and should never be a complete separation.

Dahui’s accusations, however exaggerated they may be, are still worthy — evidenced by the fact that people are still making them today — and required Hongzhi to clarify his teachings so that hopefully his students would understand that the Dharma necessarily included every part of life, not only what was done in the meditation hall.

Sri Ramana Maharshi ran into this problem quite a bit himself. India, after all, has a long tradition of sanyasa — spiritual devotees and yogis taking vows never to own property, never to marry, renouncing family life and earning a living, etc. Sanyasa is, in theory, a complete refusal of the demands of the world in favor of a perfectly spiritual life. For some few, this works out well: they may devote themselves to spiritual goals and provide spiritual benefit to those who must lead a normal life, in return for which they are given food and occasional temporary shelter and great freedom to move about besides. More often than not, though, it is simply the transference of attachment from one set of expectations to another. For this reason and others, my own lineage dissolved its tradition of sanyasa some decades ago when moving to the West; Western needs are simply different, and sanyasa is not the freedom here that it can be in India.

Even in India, however, sanyasa has been abused by many as a means of simply avoiding responsibility. For this reason, Sri Ramana Maharshi actively discouraged his own disciples from taking sanyasa vows. Many would come to him and say, “I wish to renounce. My many responsibilities at work and at home will not allow me time enough for spiritual practice.” Ramana would invariably respond to the effect that one’s responsibilities were part of one’s spiritual practice, and that real renunciation was an inner reversal not dependent upon external conditions; he would say that if one is in the world and longs for the peace of the wilderness, once one got out to the wilderness one would long for the conveniences of the world, and so outward renunciation was just moving one’s obsessive mind to new objects. True renunciation is then just turning attention to the nature of the Self, allowing one the freedom to flexibly engage with whatever events arose from a more expansive inner standpoint. Very pointedly, Ramana would often tell people to simply surrender the sense of doership; let the Self perform necessary actions through you.

To some, this last part further sounds like trouble, a sort of Quietism which perhaps empowers those who would be oppressors. It is worth noting first that Sri Ramana Maharshi was himself an advocate for Indian independence during the days of British occupation; while he was not really political active, he nevertheless understood the necessity of Indian self-rule for social advancement. But a specific story which makes clear Ramana’s advice when it came to living up to one’s responsibilities is worth the telling.

The spiritual teacher Papaji, according to his biographer David Godman, had a number of life-changing encounters with his Guru Sri Ramana Maharshi. At one point, Papaji had entirely relocated himself to Ramana’s ashram at the foot Arunachala near the town Tiruvannamalai. He spent all his days in carefree contemplation of the form of his Guru. But he had entirely abandoned his family to their own fates: as he was not working, he was sending them no money, and being physically distant (they were in the north, he in the south) he was doing them no good in any other way. Then came the beginning phase of Indian independence and the event which still casts a shadow over modern southeast Asia: Partition.

This was a chaotic time when the British, as a parting gift, sliced off portions of India to become Pakistan and, eventually, Bangladesh. As often happens when such political moves are made to draw attention to ethnic and religious differences, conflicts broke out. Muslims and Hindus murdered one another on trains moving across newly-formulated borders. Just as Partition was kicking off, Papaji was asked by another devotee at the ashram if he was going to do anything to help his family who were just north of the new boundary in Muslim Pakistan. Papaji’s reply was that he was here with his Guru and his Guru was his only family. This concerned Sri Ramana Maharshi who, on a walk with Papaji on a day soon thereafter, turned to him and said in no uncertain terms, “Go save your family.”

Papaji asserted that, “Having knowledge of the Self, I know also that this is all a dream.” Ramana said firmly, “Do not fear the dream! Go, do your duty.” And so he did; Papaji left Ramanashramam, found his family up north, and relocated them, housed them, began working three jobs to support them while they got on their own feet, found jobs, married, took up their own homes, and so forth. This process of course took years, as Papaji had some 30+ family members, mostly women who at that time were difficult to get work for. But he took the lesson of his Guru quite seriously.

That phrase, “Do not fear the dream!,” is a powerful one. While acknowledging that our perceptions and priorities do change due to our experiences on the spiritual path, it also acknowledges that our circumstances do not vanish for our convenience. For Ramana, it’s all God’s doing, so we must continue to play our part even though we attain to the awareness that God is really the one acting through us. For the Natha, as for the Chan master, all events are an upwelling of the Absolute. We may at times experience it all as “dreamlike”, as unreal, or as a grand dynamic unity, but we must still deal with health concerns, physical dangers, political unrest, economic shifts and drops, and belligerent people. Most of us still have family, friends, jobs, positions in our local communities, and responsibilities to larger civic bodies like nations.

As I’ve emphasized again and again, no mere observer can dictate to us what our duties really are. A serious responsibility for one person may be a minor detail for another. For instance, “household” means something different for me than it ought to for someone who has children depending upon them. I still must care for my household, but it’s a very different thing when the household consists of two adults and not one or more adults and dependent children! Similarly, I couldn’t tell someone else how to behave toward their abusive family when I have a good relationship with my own parents. That person might uncover through their spiritual work a very constructive way of interacting with their family, while another may find that for a variety of reasons these relatives are not family in any sense that demands responsibility from them. These are not easy questions to answer and require Hongzhi’s Harmony to find healthy solutions.

Though often misunderstood, this all comes down ultimately to karma. The actions we take have consequences. This is an obvious enough observation, but how often do we really think through what it means for us? Consequences snake through many lifetimes — our own and those of many others. The causes of our own circumstances are the results of someone’s past actions, often many “someones” all together! Cause and effect is more a web than a single thread. For as long as we are here, we have some level of investment in the integrity of this web and in the direction in which we cast our own lines to link up with those of others. While there ultimately are no “others” with whom to interact, yet the Self is revealed in many forms — and those forms matter, even if only momentarily.

Cut the knot
The yoke drops away
Only now
Is the real union seen

Universal Love & Compassion

A man works and can only work for himself. When he feels he is working for someone else he is either immature or foolish. ~ Sri Swami Rudrananda

Much-touted in modern spiritual circles is the notion of universal love. Yogis in particular — whether we or others call us Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, or anything else — are supposed to cultivate compassion (or loving-kindness, depending on your preferred interpretation) above nearly all other virtues. I am not here for the clickbaiting task of “disabusing my readership of that mistaken notion”, but I am interested in exploring the concept further. As I’ve said before, I write primarily to process my own experiences, but I share what I write in hopes helping others to do the same. We needn’t always come to the same conclusion to help one anothers’ process.

The yogi is under no obligation to display universal kindness. Kindness is not goodness. It has no inherent value. It is a social lubricant which can be good in its place and time, but in excess or used in the wrong circumstances kindness makes it difficult or impossible to understand the real dynamic of a situation.

The Christian thinker C. S. Lewis — if I am remembering correctly in his book The Problem of Pain — puts it that “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” Though I no longer call myself a Christian, the wisdom of C. S. Lewis will stick with me on many points; it is perhaps his vision of Christianity which has colored my perception of what Christianity ought to be quite distinct from what it in fact is. To this point, Lewis does not mean to denigrate kindness, but to put it in a much greater context. Kindness is neither the only nor the greatest of virtues, and like any other virtue we can easily lose sight of all the others by digging into it exclusively.

Love is “more stern” because it is ready to support the growth of its object. If I am merely kind to my wife, I wish just to keep her contented and quiet, but if I love her, I will support her as she works to learn and grow and better herself though it requires some sacrifice of us both. A good marriage is one in which this love goes both ways. The same is true of authentic friendship, and so on. (In principle, each member of a Christian congregation is supposed to feel this about the congregation as a whole; we see in practice how rarely this is so, as this sort of love is fairly uncommon in any relationship.)

Vitally, kindness would prefer the status remain quo. For most of us, kindness is merely laziness of feeling.

Individuality and individualism are troublesome ideas to grapple with, but are immediately relevant to the present discussion. Individuality is not itself a problem. The yogi must, in fact, recognize their own individuality and come to grips with the components of it. Individualism, however, makes a religion out of one’s own identity. American culture and the many — many — diseases within it are largely the doing of the cult of individualism. Where a mature individual can see how their own difficulties are similar (in some ways, at least) to those of others and therefore display empathy and compassion, the individualist is so caught by their own (ironically) group or population identity that the difficulties of anyone outside those identities is that of a distant alien at best or of a hated enemy at worst. Usually it will switch from one to the other depending upon how much those “others” try to better their own position…

I wrote in another article that “I am very much of the mind that social pressure, whether exerted by one person or by an entire culture, is something like the interaction of the balance of kleshas among all the people involved.” In other words, much of the time even when we think we are doing good when we put social pressure on others we are projecting our own kleshas on to other people and the world at large. Unfortunately, when those who actually hold the power perceive others as threats to their hegemony, this pressure invariably becomes violence — a physical projection of their kleshas upon the world.

Violence breeds violence. This trite cliché is no less true for how much we hear it and think we understand it. When a hegemonic power lashes out to protect the egos of its constituents, it cannot be surprised when the response is a violent resistance. We needn’t condone violence to understand its causes and even to sympathize with those who see it as their only recourse in the face of a real existential threat presented by those who use it to protect against a merely conceptual threat to their little reified selves. When the kleshas get rolling, it takes a monumental effort to break their momentum. And, like a virus, they spread.

The healthy individual can make a conscious decision in the midst of all this not to allow the infection to take hold in them. That does not mean that the healthy individual will never display force, but that they will do so deliberately rather than reflexively. Violence for them will be a last resort, and to be used decisively like a great general might, so that the harm to both sides may be minimized and the rebuilding begin as soon as possible. The coward alone wants to extend or expand violence because the coward cannot imagine wanting the good of his opponent once the fighting ends; the coward is so afraid that he cannot even imagine cooperation with anyone who is unlike himself.

Mahasiddhas, Rishis, etc., sometimes showed very intense anger and disrespect. Famously, masters of Chan and Zen Buddhism will use brief but intense bursts of force to produce a shock in their students. Sri Dadaji Dhuniwala and Sri Chellapaswami were both known to yell and throw things at those who approached them for teachings or blessings when the asking would be vain. My own lineage currently features a sincere but gnomish “gatekeeper” whose job is explicitly to allow applicants for instruction to filter themselves out. My first mentor in said lineage was very kind and patient — except for a few moments when being pointed produced better results. It is worth noting that an individual of my acquaintance who most glorifies in the unnecessary use of violence against those who are already hurting was the first to tell me that the harsh but helpful words of a teacher were “inappropriate” on the grounds that for him to have one’s identity and assumptions challenged is as bad as death.

Sri Rudrananda’s quotation at the head of this entry may seem extremely selfish. In fact, it is a call to radical responsibility. If I join an organization or a movement, even if I just give to a charity or another individual in need, it is as much a part of my process as is my daily meditation practice. If I am smart about it, I can engage with this fact directly and make the most out of it. If I am naive and think that my actions are only external, I miss a great opportunity to learn about myself and to grow inwardly. I am most truly useful when I am in touch with my individuality. Apart from that, I do incredible harm through all of my kindnesses. It is better to be truthfully angry than (self-)deceptively nice. Of course, I must eventually grow through that anger, but if I acknowledge that it is there, and know why it is there, it becomes so much fertilizer to my root system. If I am dishonest with myself and ignorant of my own motives, everything is poison.

Living in Kali Yuga: Part 5 — Staying Positive

"If one remains at peace oneself, there is only peace all about." ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 453
image from

There seems ever to be a war playing out between those who take themselves too seriously and those who do not take themselves seriously; the latter better understand the gravity of life while the former are merely subject to it. Though many depictions of the War in Heaven have made it seem as if Heaven itself is of unsmiling countenance, legends of the Fall of the Angels make clear that it was the lead Antagonist who thought himself more personally significant than any one can be and, taken with such self-importance, cast himself out by failing to see the joke in mankind’s creation and chaining himself to a heavy anchor.

A sense of humor about oneself is not the same thing as not taking anything seriously. Instead, one may smile and laugh at their own imperfect efforts while knowing that one must act somewhere, somehow, so screw-ups will happen. Such humor needn’t pick at another’s armor — though it will when this is authentically helpful. It is not mere trolling, it is light-hearted poetry.

I used to criticize, at least in my own mind, those yogis and other seekers for enlightenment who lowered themselves to remark upon social and political things. I saw this as being drawn unknowingly into the mire of samsāra. I have since come to realize that since each yogi requires different sādhana, each of us must also determine which involvements fit our sādhana and which do not. And no mere observer can tell the yogi if they’re making the right choice. Like all things in Yoga, it must be proven out in experience.

In Yoga, we work to generate tapas — inner heat. This is both literal and figurative. During meditation the body does often become quite warm, even to another person who touches the meditating yogi. But the heat is also a metaphor. Yoga is analogous to a fire sacrifice in which we toss everything of ourselves into the fire for Lord Agni to translate and Siva to return as prasad. The yogi therefore turns their whole life into an offering and God gives it back as a sacrament.

For some, then, involvement in movements for reform, justice, and a compassionate society is as much a sādhana as is puja. When pursued for the benefit of people and without expectation for mere personal gain, it is tapas. It generates internal heat which, properly focused through devotion and meditation, breaks down the blockages within. It is another form of meditating in a cold running river. The yogi must be in the midst of the rush and maintain equipoise.

This is not the way for everyone, just as the river is not the way for everyone. But the template holds no matter which sort of life one finds oneself in. Humor and optimism are irreducible necessities on the spiritual path as well as being outgrowths of it. Humor lets us see the world more honestly and laughter shakes us out of untenable positions. Optimism reminds us that we can learn and move, that we are not stuck in place, and impels our steps.

Be clear: optimism does not mean denialism. It is not optimistic to pretend that everything is fine; it is optimistic to recognize the problems and seek for solutions. Sometimes those problems are social, sometimes material, but they are always spiritual insofar as they are always mirrors of states of consciousness.

An easily misunderstood teaching is that when one attains peace of mind, the whole world is peaceful. As with so many things expressed in “twilight language”, we must look through the words to the experience itself. A peaceful mind doesn’t make the events of the world vanish; it does, however, let us see that the ground of those events is not different from our own mind. The peaceful ground allows for peace in what grows from it. Without a peaceful mind, peace in the world seems impossible; with a peaceful mind, peace in the world is instantly realized at least within a single body-mind and that’s all that is strictly necessary for it to be realized elsewhere. Laughter allows the body-mind to instantiate the peace of the depths just as gently shaking a vessel of sand settles the grains. Positivity is not so much a natural consequence of peace but its reflection into the world.

Whether we are in Kali Yuga, in ascending Treta Yuga, in the Age of Iron or the Age of Aquarius, or anything else, conflict and chaos are inevitable in this world. Surrender is only momentary; the fight may always be entered fresh. But to do so, one must have some sense that it is worth it — and the capacity to laugh at the absurdity of the whole endeavor, however important it may be.

Living in Kali Yuga: Part 4 — The Astrology of Politics & The Politics of Astrology

I have lately been putting my astrology studies to a very hard test: a thorough analysis of how my own personality has developed and how it will develop in the future. This includes, of course, the extraction of workable information for my own development and daily Tantra practice. But on the front of introspection, it’s been a process of seeing how much of who we are is determined. I know a lot of magicians and Westerners broadly really hate the thought of determinism, so let me say that I don’t mean that everything is 100% determined; rather, free will is contoured and channeled by many factors of which we are often not conscious, and even when we are made aware of them we can’t do that much about them except respond to them more intelligently.

In the present reality of alarmingly divisive party politics in the United States of America — divisions which go very deep into the hearts of the country, of local communities, of families, and of individuals — it is interesting as an astrologer to ponder why we each think and feel the way we do and how and why our opinions change as we move through different stages of life. I can very clearly see, looking back at my own astrological developmental phases, which planets impacted my beliefs at any given time. Seeing this, I can tease them apart and see why I believe what I do now, and how much or little those beliefs serve me and those around me. Here’s an example of where properly guided free will can find its place to play. I can see in my chart, for example, how I have always been naturally inclined toward conservatism, but that conservatism doesn’t often serve my own ideals. Moreover, when I would change my mind, it would swing wildly to the opposite extreme — about which I would again become conservative. So as I have aged and Jupiter has gotten more play, I’ve begun more and more to question what is really worth conserving. This has brought more flexibility to my thinking; rather than ping-ponging as I am convinced of different ideas, I can be selective, taking what seems to really work about a given idea and figure out how to build it into other ideas rather than feeling like I have to reject or accept whole hog.

Of course, the character of a nation or community has its own karma. This is usually read not only with its own natal chart, but also with an annual mundane chart cast from the capital or seat of the collective body in questions for the day and time of the entrance of the Sun into Aries. From this it is possible to read the course of the community for the next twelve months. From such a chart, we can view the cleavages among the people and their leaders. In this year’s mundane chart for the United States, for example, we can see Mars exalted which would bode well for the ruler (in our case, President Donald Trump), except that Mars falls in the 3rd house of difficulty and is conjunct a strong Saturn in his own sign, a debilitated Jupiter, and the southern lunar node Ketu who brings perversion. I could go on with a variety of other details in the chart — from Mercury’s debility to the Scorpio ascendant.

I recently chanced upon the reading of this specific mundane chart by a well-known occultist, and his interpretation was extraordinarily different from my own. I don’t wish to name names; astrology is hard, as is writing for the public, and I don’t want to put anyone on blast for either. But it is notable how much of his own political biases he, often gleefully, injected into his reading. He saw the debilitated Mercury and Jupiter, for example, as a sign that the “complaining class” — which he seems to think simultaneously includes the entirety of those who have criticisms of Trump’s presidency as well as all political elites, as if the only people who could possibly take issue with Trump’s behavior and policies are the rich and powerful — would have no power this year. My own reading, and what we seem to be seeing in reality, is our leadership’s failure in areas of compassion, communication, wisdom, policy, and the capacity to bring joy to the people. Since the US isn’t a monarchy or a dictatorship, the mundane chart isn’t just about a single ruler or leader, but about the whole federal leadership — both houses of Congress included, regardless of party affiliation. The lack of wisdom and incapacity to communicate and reconcile differences is not limited to a single party or special interest but stands as a broad indictment of our entire government. Exalted Mars when the lagna is Scorpio could indicate a capacity of the national leadership to protect the nation’s vulnerable spots, but Mars’s residence in the 3rd house of difficulties, disease, and enemies and conjunction with a strong Saturn (who already rules disease and discord) indicates a coming to the surface and exacerbation of our national weaknesses. Ketu’s conjunction with Mars and Saturn but residence in the 2nd house extends the whole dynamic also into our national wealth. Here is a fine summary of what we’ve seen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in our country, the Black Lives Matter movement, and plenty of other factors making headlines. Mars and Ketu together with Scorpio lagna have also done a fine job of increasing violence, physically and rhetorically, in such a way as to specifically target our national weak points. We could go on with details for days, if we wanted. The point is less about the mundane chart itself and more about how our biases play into our free interpretations of the data. The parallels with people politicizing the facts of the world amidst current events in rather dangerous ways needn’t be mentioned…

When I read a chart — for an individual or for a nation — I must always be aware of myself first and foremost. It’s been said that the greatest value of astrological practice is what the astrologer learns about themselves in the process. And in doing astrology for others, we see that in practice: the more we unwind our own habits of thought, the better we are able to see the other person’s chart for what it is rather than for what we’d prefer it were. A good astrologer should be able to read for a client regardless of that client’s beliefs about the world, and should equally be able to read for the world regardless of the beliefs of the people in it.

Astrology, properly understood, is a form of Yoga. In the context of Jyotish — commonly called “Vedic”, “Indian”, or “Hindu” astrology but literally “having to do with light” — it is a process of learning what I do and do not have control over and where to surrender. This topic deserves a discussion to itself, but it’s worth stating in brief here because it pertains so directly to the how and why of the Jyotish worldview. In relation to the present topic, it would be a mistake to surrender to the planets themselves. In Jyotish we refer to the planets, inclusive of the two lunar nodes, as grahas which translates as “grasper”. A graha is an intelligent force (a “god”) who takes hold of us at various points and pushes, pulls, and manipulates us into various actions. While all of the grahas have some claim on us all of the time, each one will at various points have primacy and our lives will take on the character of that graha. Exactly how to examine this gets into deep territory, but understanding the principle is important.

An example from my own life might be helpful: I went through a very rough few years not too long ago. Externally, my life looked fine. There were some of the usual ups and downs, but nothing too stressful. But for some reason, I responded with extreme frustration and anger; I felt frustrated even when things were quite good and comfortable. It was a strange and emotionally difficult time despite outward circumstances. Looking at my own chart, I was able eventually to spot precisely which planet was causing the trouble and I started to do some remediation work to improve my relationship with that planet (also a topic for another entry). It didn’t take long for my emotional equilibrium to return — though I’m a little ashamed to say how long it took me to have the thought to look at my chart to figure it out!

The key to all remediation, though, takes us back to surrender. When we chant a planetary mantra, when we make an image or yantra according to an appropriate election, when we wear a planetary gem, we are fundamentally admitting that we cannot handle the situation ourselves. Many magicians may not see it that way, but it’s precisely what is behind these actions. All of these actions are really a sort of prayer for help in a case which is too big and overwhelming for us.

None of this, however, absolves us of responsibility. Even the decision to surrender, to ask for help, requires a decision on our part. No matter our astrological make-up, we can make this choice. Moreover, we can make the choice to look at our own make-up — whether astrological, genetic, societal, or according to any other reading of destiny we care to claim — to see our individual strengths and failings for what they are, and to do whatever we can about them. We can choose to cultivate detachment which grants us perspective and mental freedom, but we can’t choose apathy because for as long as we are here life is going to come at us. Our decision is not whether to engage but how. As I’ve tried to emphasize before, no one else can dictate that how, but astrology is, for my money, the best way to learn it.

Living in Kali Yuga — Part 3: Karma Yoga

“We must play our part on the stage of life, but without identifying with those parts.” ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi

I was recently called a fascist for sharing the above quotation. It was pretty puzzling to me at first, but on consideration, I can understand why the person misunderstood my intent. They had asked for insight from others as to how one could live a spiritual life with anger. This issue cuts close to the bone for me, so I shared the quotation as an indication of my own strategy.

If you are interested in Yoga, you probably immediately recognized Sri Ramana Maharshi’s words as a formulation of the essence of Karma-Yoga. Karma-Yoga, the Yoga of action, is a method of using daily life as part of one’s practice by renouncing purely worldly opinions of your duties and fulfilling your dharma without expectation of reward; rather, doing your duty willingly and with an attitude of renunciation is willingly allowing God to act through you.

The hostile confusion of the individual mentioned above comes from a misunderstanding of the idea of duty — of playing our parts. It is, so to say, a confusion of planes. Svadharma, one’s own law, is the law one must discover and fulfill for oneself. This is a spiritual responsibility, so svadharma must not be confused with purely social or political duty. If we think in purely political terms, we could read Ramana Maharshi’s statement as saying that we have to do what the government tells us without asking too many questions. But that’s not the context in which the Maharshi was speaking. While he rarely made any explicitly political statements, Ramana Maharshi was in favor of Indian independence and gave his blessing to those working toward that end. Clearly, his notion of the parts we play — and the yogic notion more broadly — was not limited to those accepted by worldly powers.

“Man, eager to improve his machines, forgets to improve himself,” wrote Paul Brunton in his The Secret Path. Machines take many forms. Socio-political thinkers as diverse as Ernst Jünger, Herbert Marcuse, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and E. F. Schumacher have all spilled ink demonstrating how mechanical international capitalism is; our social, political, and economic systems are themselves machines. Machines are meant to be useful, and so require maintenance, repair, even replacement, in order to continue or improve their usefulness. But, as Brunton points out, if we focus entirely on our creations — at whatever scale — we may fail to look at ourselves, the source and support of those creations. Spirituality is the pivot point; Yoga is turning inward.

Astrologically, we can see part of the difficulty. Mars’s only natural enemy is Mercury. That is to say, Mercury is the only planet which naturally has an inimical influence upon Mars in an astrological reading; other planets may harm Mars circumstantially, but Mercury will do so any time he interacts with Mars. (This is not two-way; Mars has a neutral influence on Mercury.) Mercury — himself ruling the element of earth — is presided over by Lord Vishnu, representing the fact that all things, at all scales, are manifestations of God and specifically our ability to realize this fact. Mars rules the fire element and is presided over by Lord Karttikeya; Karttikeya’s rulership represents the will necessary to cut out what stands in the way of our growth. That is, Mars is associated with the process of purification.

There’s an apparent contradiction between these two functions which is where the problem lies. Mercury points toward a nondual experience of life in the universe, while Mars seems to be quite dualistic and moralistic. Through the faculty of Mars we have the courage and the discipline to slash and burn what doesn’t serve us. But if there are things which we can say are “impure” and a resulting effort toward “purity”, doesn’t that imply either the inherent dualism of the world or that this very moral quest is flawed and should be abandoned to achieve a nondual perspective?

You can see why Mercury would throw Mars off his game. Mars displays anger as he destroys obstacles — which can sometimes take the form of other living beings. If we are living primarily from the perspective of Mercury, we will try instead to talk our way out of all potential conflicts because if everyone is God there’s no point in fighting. You can very often tell a person who’s Mars is under heavy Mercury influence (either conjunction or a direct aspect) when the person lacks the courage of their convictions. Such a person may make strong points or take strident positions, but will have trouble standing up to those who actively threaten them or who and what they really value. Though it may look like it from the outside, this isn’t really cowardice so much as it is a genuine desire to avoid conflict; they will try to bring people together, and if that is not possible they will wearily retreat.

But as implied, the conflict between nondual experience and righteousness is only apparent; it becomes a problem for us, individually and as societies, when we fail to enact each one in its proper place and time. True purity doesn’t see “impure” things as inherently impure, only situationally so. A need to protect one’s people can manifest as bravery in a healthy instance or as bigotry and xenophobia in an unhealthy one. The question is one of deeper motive. Is the individual fully under the sway of the kleshas and of resultant social conditioning, or are they responding more freely to the facts around them? Here is part of the trouble which faced Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita and from which Krishna (himself an avatar of Lord Vishnu) had to extricate him. Krishna’s lesson? A proper understanding of nonduality! We may feel anger in the face of real or perceived wrong-doing, or we may wish to avoid fighting altogether because we do not wish to harm our human family, but when it comes down to it we need to see through our merely personal preferences to determine what is really needful in the situation and, once we see it at all clearly, to commit to do our duty. This doesn’t mean that we will never make mistakes, but it does make it easier for us to see the way forward and to change our minds if we find we’ve been going in the wrong direction. Arjuna himself was conflicted between his desire to avoid doing harm to his cousins and the knowledge that they had done, and continued to do, grievous wrong. The lesson of Bhagavad Gita is that what Krishna taught Arjuna, we also can learn. We should neither hunger for the fight nor to run from it if it should become necessary. As Mahatma Gandhi so bluntly put it, “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”

But we also have to pay attention. Mars rules the ego — the sum of our character and self-identification, conscious and unconscious — while Mercury can grant self-knowledge. Here’s another area of potential conflict with these planets. It is thus easy to fall into various traps of believing that we are “doing the right thing” when just below the surface we are motivated not by nondual awareness or compassion but by mortal terror or existential dread. The flip side of Mercury’s overthinking is unreflective commitment to duties imposed upon us by our anxieties and those who would exacerbate them to achieve their own ends.

The two problems here explored are over-identification with our role in the world (Mars) and “spiritual bypassing” of our responsibilities (Mercury).

Let us accept and use wisely all the facts which modern science has found out. Let us live in enjoyment of all the comforts and conveniences its progress can bestow. Let us renounce nothing but the unwise and destructive use we have often put it to, the unbalanced attention we have given it.

But let us also link this external social activity with a deeper life, the life of tranquil thought and inner peace, and thus learn to preserve an unruffled stillness of spirit even amid varied vicissitudes of existence.


Then we shall attack the world’s problems of poverty, war, disease and ignorance with a new zest, and with better success, yet we shall not forget to render our daily homage to that peace-bestowing and soul-ennobling divinity who dwells in the hearts of men.

Paul Brunton, The Secret Path

Though we may learn from others, nobody can tell us where to find this particular balance in our own lives. Many will try, demanding that we follow them — in whichever direction. But svadharma can neither be dictated from without nor arbitrarily chosen according to convenience. When God seems to agree with our own prejudices or the prejudices of those who would demand something of us it is necessary to ask whose voice we’re really hearing.

New Post on Patreon!

In case you’re wondering, I’ve been putting some posts up on Patreon one to two weeks early for my patrons. The third part of the “Living in Kali Yuga” series is there right now, while it won’t be available here for another week! So if you’re interested in early access to content and some other perks, check out my Patreon.

Living in Kali Yuga — Part 2: Big Trouble

Some years ago, when I was deep in my investigation of the literature of Traditionalism, I happened upon a book in a used book store entitled Yuga: An Anatomy of our Fate by Marty Glass. Like Julius Evola’s Ride the Tiger before it, it bills itself as a “clarion call” to the aristocratic soul caught in this age of suffering. I read it with interest because, at that time, there wasn’t a lot of contemporary Traditionalist literature. What was available were largely reprints of the works of Evola, Guenon, Schuon, and so forth — men who had all been dead for decades. It was fascinating, then, to see something written for those who had come after and who felt a similar instinct: that something was profoundly wrong in the world which had not been wrong in the past.

And, like the books of other Traditionalists (notably excepting Schuon), Yuga read like a lamentation of dead innocence on a global scale, a paean to a lost Arthurian Avalon which never was and never could have been. With histrionics unmatched even by Percy Shelley, Glass throws accusations of false consciousness and straw men out by the fists-full across the whole swathe of human life. Page after page, Marty Glass goes beyond insisting that something is wrong here — which we all know well enough, thanks, Marty — to the eyebrow-raising assumption that most of modern humanity is too dense to realize it. But thank God Marty Glass and his Traditionalist heroes have the answers to wake us up from our deep, nightmare-rich slumber! Like Evola before him, Glass pretends that his book is useful, that it contains some method by which we can awaken and, finding ourselves in the dread Kali Yuga, rise above it as the spiritual nobles we (some of us, anyway) inwardly are. Unfortunately, page after page — again, like Evola — even the most careful of readers will find little more than pathetic lamentations and condemnations punctuated by occasional high-flown poetic declarations. There is nothing here which you could ever find to do, except perhaps curl up in bed and whimper about being “apolitical”.

Again we see how Western Traditionalists lift ideas from all over the place and apply them in a way that fits their assumptions, rather than learning from different traditions on their own terms and intelligently adapting that knowledge to modern Western circumstances. My own Natha lineage is explicitly “non-Hindu”, not because we repudiate our Hindu roots but because we don’t pretend to follow Indian social and religious patterns which simply do not suit the ways in which we have to live in the US, in Britain, in Australia, and so on. Historically, and as far as our spiritual practice goes, we’d still be recognized as Hindu in a broad sense. Similarly, many modern Western occultists are simultaneously Christian and non-Christian, depending on where you place your emphasis. The point is that an intellectually honest mystic or magician is adaptable and lives dynamically.

The main thing about Kali Yuga that gets left out of Traditionalist discussions on the topic is also perhaps the most important single thing about the Hindu interpretation: it is actionable. Kali Yuga is the most difficult time during which to practice any sort of spiritual discipline because it is so full of suffering and distractions from suffering; it is for this very reason, though, that every bit of effort made toward spiritual practice during this time is supposed to bear fruit far more easily and rapidly than in days past. Part of it is said to be the simple justice of it: if it’s hard and dangerous to do a thing, someone who does it deserves greater reward than someone who sticks with easier, safer tasks. But really it’s not much different from jogging while wearing a weighted vest: the extra strain increases gains just because the system has to work harder and therefore adapt to performing a more difficult set of movements. Even if we don’t accept the whole notion of the yugas, this still stands to reason. While we may lament many problems with the world, we should therefore not lament that the world is hard — at least those of us who focus on living a spiritual life. Though there are many forces trying to get us to create or expand karmas, we also have the opportunity to burn them off with great intensity if we engage intelligently with the events of the world.

Moreover, Kali Yuga is not a uniform set of conditions. As with any other broad environmental factor — such as diseases, famines, art movements, or political ideologies — Kali Yuga does not blanket the Earth evenly. Instead, like snow, it may fall in great quantities but due to wind and variable heat on the surface upon which it falls, it will turn to dirty slush here, melt away entirely there, and form great, deep drifts where it is blown against embankments and buildings. Let’s break the metaphor down.

Any number of conditions, internal and environmental, can sway how a person perceives and interacts with their world. Even that most orthodox of Hindu sources, Manusmrti — the closest Hindu parallel to the law texts of the Bible — mentions that a good and just king can make his kingdom like a pocket of the Golden Age in the midst of the Age of Darkness. I don’t think that Manu intended this to be mere symbolic hyperbole. His advice on just rulership, like that found in I Ching, is extremely idealistic and very hard to apply consistently in complex real-world governance, but in both of these cases the ethic is clear: if a ruler could even approximate virtuous and wise leadership, their homeland would be a spiritual as well as material refuge. Some classic manuals of Hatha and Raja Yoga even include a land with a just and good king in which to live as an extremely helpful aid alongside things like fresh food and water and a clean, uncluttered home. These don’t necessarily make one’s Yoga faster or more powerful, but they do make it easier — the main benefit of living in one of the “higher” yugas. Even if the yugas are literal, measurable, predictable spans of time, then, it is to a large extent up to human beings to determine how entrenched any given yuga is allowed to become.

It’s also worth noting in passing that these classic sources on good governance seem explicitly to define just governance as that which provides for the well-being of the people, protecting them and ensuring their good health, while taking a rather hands-off approach on daily affairs; at no point do they advocate for anything resembling fascism. Even Manu’s descriptions of the varnas (usually translated, problematically, as “castes”) defines them not as classes into which a person is born but which depend upon spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical aptitudes. While it’s a veritable certainty that, much like biblical law, Manu’s laws have never come anywhere close to being enforced in full, insofar as they’ve been taken as Manu himself wrote them, socio-economic classes had some degree of porousness to them; it is even thought possible to determine an individual’s true varna astrologically, and it may be entirely different from that of their parents. I’m not at all advocating for society to be rebuilt upon the lines of ancient, obsolete, and stratified ideals, but pointing out where those ideals differ from the misuse to which they’re put in some modern discourse.

It seems clear from the historical record, from art, from myths as old as the hills, that human society has never been anywhere near devoid of suffering. Human life and happiness has perhaps been valued differently at different times and places, with some civilizations perhaps placing a higher premium on humanity but with a narrower scope on who is counted; our own seems (mostly) to value life broadly a bit less than some but to spread that value somewhat more evenly across social and economic categories. Perhaps we can’t ever have the full value of human life until we are able to spread that net as widely as possible, to include, as suggested by law professor Christopher Stone’s paper for the Southern California Law Review entitled “Should Trees Have Standing?”, all natural “objects” as subjects under our systems of law. In short, perhaps what keeps us from enacting the fullness of which we are capable is not the cruel destiny of our present yuga but our own incapacity to see rightly.

Many Neo-Pagans and magicians today speak of “the veil between the worlds” — a sort of membrane which separates our workaday physical world from the planes inhabited variously by the dead, spirits, gods, demons, and whatever other subjects are experienced as fellow-inhabitants of the cosmos. “The veil” is intentionally vague and poetic, as there are any number of hypotheses as to what this veil might actually be. Perhaps it is a literal dividing substance, or a metaphysical distance between different layers of reality. In these and other interpretations, however, the veil is often accidentally literalized by language such as the apparent “thinning” of the veil at certain locations (places of especially terrible battles or grisly murders, or sites of numerous powerful magical rituals, for examples) or times (solstices, Halloween, Walpurgis Night, etc.). There’s an ongoing discussion among some occultists to the effect that the veil appears to be thinning everywhere, year round; strange things seem to be popping through, odd experiences becoming more commonplace, phenomena usually reserved for wooded vales on May Day Eve happening in suburban gardens. This has widely been associated with Tower Time — a term referring to the Tower card of the Tarot that some elements of the occult Left have taken to using in a way rather similar to how the Traditionalist/occult Right treats Kali Yuga. In other words, it us believed to have something to do with degeneracy and cataclysm either to come or in process.

In John Carpenter’s action-comedy masterpiece Big Trouble in Little China, the Daoist sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong) spots a river of what is obviously crude petroleum as the heroes are exploring deep underground to find the evil undead wizard Lo Pan’s (James Hong) hidden temple; Egg Shen gestures toward the flow in troubled wonder and exclaims, “Black blood of the Earth!” The white-guy-sidekick-who-thinks-he’s-the-hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) looks and says, “You mean oil?” to which Egg Shen responds emphatically, “No, I mean black blood of the Earth!”

Though Big Trouble in Little China could hardly be called a deeply philosophical film, this moment has always struck me as profoundly insightful. John Carpenter’s films aren’t all amazing, but at his best he manages to organically inject intelligence into movie genres usually relegated to popcorn fare. It isn’t that Egg Shen is primitive, nor that Jack Burton is wrong; they’re both perceiving accurately and expressing what they see. Egg Shen is certainly aware that crude petroleum is the substance processed into gasoline, plastics, etc. The difference is that Jack Burton can only see oil, where Egg Shen can see that the substance fits two descriptions simultaneously, and that one of those has ontological priority.

I propose that this is at least a partial explanation for things like the veil; there’s no literal membrane between planes, only layers of observational priority which we accidentally reify through the overuse of basically poetic language. Most of us are Jack Burton starting, for a variety of reasons, to get a glimpse through the opera glasses of Egg Shen and Lo Pan. Once more, with feeling: Kali Yuga, Tower Time, whatever we choose to call it, is actionable.

Much of magical, psychic, and mystical training is one way or another about opening up our internal organ of perception (that is to say, the mind) to these other layers. This can be done intentionally or accidentally, and it can happen gradually or cataclysmically. I suspect that the notably stressful times in which we presently find ourselves are serving as triggers for accidental cataclysms in those who are to some extent primed for them. I’ve no doubt that certain spiritual entities have a hand in it, as well, but an internal expansion of perceptive faculty is still required.

It doesn’t matter if Kali Yuga is literal or not. What matters is what we do. It’s best that we don’t become fanatical about our models, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use them to inspire change — in ourselves and in our world. They only become troublesome when we try to climb in and inhabit our models, to walk on our maps rather than on the streets they depict, wrapping ourselves in conceptual nets which hold us back from the peace, freedom, and happiness we seek for ourselves and our communities.

Living in Kali Yuga — Part 1: World of Darkness

Growing up, my friends and I were pretty big into role playing games. As with most people who play these games, we mostly stuck to the fantasy and sword & sorcery genres. When we wanted to branch out, though, we mostly went to modern horror. Modern horror as a genre, whether of literature, film, or games, has a very different mood from fantasy, but the core conceits are pretty similar: what if the monsters and magic of folklore and myth were real? The difference is that in fantasy the main characters exist in a world in which these things are assumed to be real, so even while perhaps finding them frightening and daunting, they are not terrifying because they do not defy common expectations of how reality works; horror, on the other hand, has the protagonists and anti-heroes running into these same things, albeit in a context which cracks or even shatters their formal learning and ingrained beliefs about the world around them.

And among our favorite games that did this were Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension. These games, though they take very different approaches to interacting with it, share a fictional setting: the modern world (as of their original writing, the mid- to late 1990s) in which the gothic horrors of vampires, werewolves, tortured ghosts, eldritch sorcerers, and fairy changelings existed as commonplaces yet just out of sight for the vast majority of humanity. It was a dark approach to wainscot fantasy which turned it into a neon-lit, rain-slick, smog-obscured deathrock scene. This setting was officially entitled the World of Darkness.

Back then, a lot of kids read those books and played those games and hoped or believed themselves to be among these creatures. Most weren’t really delusional, but they felt that these identities filled in some deep crevice or bridged a wide cavern in their inner lives. Arguably, the subculture which developed around these RPGs gave rise to modern “otherkin” identities as fans of World of Darkness games wove their way through tabletop and video gaming, fantasy, horror, science fiction, goth rock, extreme metal, occult, and Internet sub- and counterculture groups. These group identities were all quite small at the time, as the information and telecommunications technologies had not reached the accessibility, ubiquity, and socio-economic dominance which they now have, so people very often held strongly to them once found and would patch them together into semi-coherent manifestos of self-empowerment and self-expression. If you lived through it, you know exactly what I mean, and if you weren’t there it would take at least a book to get across anything of what that world was like.

One part of it which has always existed, however, and which persists in human nature to this day, is the singular experience of “otherness”. While certain social, sexual, ethnic, and religious minorities experience it more accutely than others because of the social, economic, and political currents against which they must swim, a feeling of alienation is such a common human experience that one can find fiction, poetry, and mythology centered on it in every canon of literature across the globe. Oral, performance, and written traditions alike not only carry its imprint but, more often than not, arise from it as their seed planted in the more or less fertile soil of whichever prevailing society.

This very feeling of otherness, whatever its material or efficient causes, is what drives us, throughout history, into mysticism, the occult, poetry, eremitical monasticism, depth psychology, philosophy.

Throughout history, too, many societies have attempted to explain this sense of alienation through some version of a Fall. Sometimes this descent comes from human disobedience (Adam and Eve) or the error of a celestial being (Sophia, Yaldabaoth). Sometimes it is just the natural course of the cosmos (Bhagavatam Mahapurana, various Buddhist texts, I Ching). The Hindu cosmological and astrological concept of the yugas is paradigmatic of this latter approach to understanding, and has become the template for much modern Western esoteric speculation as well. Occultists of today often draw from any and all of these previous sources and use the Hindu framework as a means of tying them together. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but when you start to syncretize observations from very different cultural contexts it can be easy to unselfconsciously allow assumptions from one culture to bleed into the ideas and practices of another. When carried out over generations, this process can give us cultural and spiritual treasures such as the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, the Corpus Hermeticum, the myriad Hindu Puranas, and hoodoo; when feverishly rushed through to fit a purely personal or timely ideology, however, we get the septic backwash of Julius Evola, eye-rolling machismo of occult fight clubs, “volkish” reconstructionism, Blavatsky’s unintentionally racist Theosophy, or overtly white nationalist neo-Vedanta and neo-Tantra.

The yugas, four in number, are similar to the three ages of classical Greek cosmology: they are a series of descending world-eras in which human civilization goes from relative perfection in its participation in the divine order to, frankly, what we’ve had for all of recorded history: dissipation, fragmentation, fear, anxiety, and conflict. This is one of those things which can’t be proven, even through the direct experience of Yoga or ritual magic; it is either taken on faith or it is not. Some astrologers have been able to point to evidence of it in the procession of equinoxes and the like, and there is a degree to which these are convincing given descriptions of the vault of the heavens found in Rg Veda and other very early oral and written spiritual traditions. Even so, the full implications of the doctrine of the yugas cannot at this time be substantiated; it will either prove true as we move undeniably into the next yuga, or, more likely, it will remain unfalsifiable — either because transitions between yugas are long and subtle, or else because there’s no such thing and you can’t prove a negative.

I have personally wrestled with the idea of yugas for just over a decade and feel no closer to a conclusion. I have therefore put the literal truth of the hypothesis to one side and focus instead on its value as an idea.

Vine Deloria Jr., famous for his role in the American Indian uprising of the 1960s and revitalization of public American Indian scholarship and intellectual life, spent a lot of his writing career exploring the so-called “progress” of civilization. He used his platform to conduct a sort of turning the gaze of Eurocentric anthropology, ethics, history, metaphysics, and theology back upon itself — making these disciplines study “white society” as if American Indians had found Europe before Europe had found the Americas. Not only does this hang a lampshade on the biases inherent to these fields of study, it also reveals valuable pieces of data hitherto ignored because of those biases. In his The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, for example, Deloria suggests that the disenchantment and alienation of modern life is nothing new, that it extends back to the very first time a sense of unity arose in human society:

The dehumanizing aspect of larger organization may be sufficient to stifle individual expression and may serve to create disruptive tendencies that prove more attractive to individuals. It would almost seem that achieving relative homogeneity is a signal for differentiation to start. The phenomenon is not restricted to primitive societies or to societies in the process of adopting new technologies. Whenever human societies discover away to create a unity, the elements creating that unity seem to emerge as centers for additional growth and unification under a new focus.

Vine Deloria Jr., The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, Fulcrum Publishing, 2012, pg 153

Of course, Deloria goes on, the modern age is “a case in point”:

The electric media […] have accelerated time and imploded space to present us with a global village homogenized by communications and bound together by an increasingly more efficient transportation system. […] The integration of the whole, in our modern world, is the coming planetary transformation of which Revel speaks, and the search for a unified understanding of human social existence, unless it takes into account the process of differentiation, will be transitory at best. Revel’s initial fascination with American social change, in which he sees the creation of alternative lifestyles as indicative of potential for growth and leadership, indicates a recognition of these growth and differentiation factors.


Referencing the the conservative Catholic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Deloria does agree with Traditionalists on one worthy point:

Not all social groups are participating in the present transformation in the same way that Western societies are. Marshall McLuhan comments that “backward countries that have experienced little permeation with our mechanical and specialist culture are much better able to confront and to understand electric technology. Not only have backward and nonindustrial cultures no specialist habits to overcome in their encounter with electromagnetism, but they have still much of their traditional oral culture that has the total, unified ‘field’ character of our new electromagnetism. Our old industrialized areas, having eroded their oral traditions automatically, are in the position of having to rediscover them in order to cope with the electric age.”

ibid, pp 153 – 4, quoting Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw Hill, 1965

Deloria, McLuhan, and the Traditionalists all see eye to eye on this point (also echoed in the works of such diverse thinkers as Ernst Jünger, Herbert Marcuse, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, and Frithjof Schuon): that “primitive” cultures have certain advantages integrating changes in communication because they never suffered the breakage of industrialization. Technology is not itself the problem; mechanization is. Mechanization, per Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (Beacon Press, 1991), paradoxically specializes us but also flattens us out as we transform into mere interchangeable parts to be replaced when worn out.

This much is true enough. But alienation has been part of the human experience for as long as records can show. Vedic astrology records it in its interpretation of the last three signs of the Zodiac; the oldest stratum of Vedic astrological lore, the Nakshatras, discuss subjective alienation at length; mystical documents as diverse as Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, Corpus Hermeticum, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms of King David attest to it loudly. Where some Traditionalists look to the early modern period, others to the Renaissance or late medieval, still others to pre-Mughal India or pre-Christian Greece and Rome, and a few “primitivist” sorts pre-Roman northern and western Europe, there’s no evidence of the kind of integrated spiritual utopia they desire. It’s the same mistake as New Agers in the ’80s and ’90s looking to pre-Columbian American civilizations for examples of social perfection.

Where ideas like the Yugas and the Ages break down is just here: there’s no evidence whatsoever that human society has ever, anywhere, at any time, reached uniform levels of enlightenment. Chances are good that the smaller the society, the healthier it is, but that’s more a matter of homogeneity and the relative simplicity of interactions with fewer areas of potential conflict, and there’s no putting that particular genie back in the bottle. Such times and places still had many of the “signs of decadence” which modern Traditionalists see today — intermarrying with other ethnic and cultural groups, homosexuality, recognition of more than two genders which may or may not be tied to physical sex, young people pushing for innovations, resisting abusive leadership, etc.

But for as much as I criticize Traditionalism’s frankly silly idealization of a past which never existed, we also go astray in idolizing current notions of progress. Progress is neither inevitable nor universally desirable; progress is a morally neutral term. It refers to movement toward an objective; that objective isn’t guaranteed to be the right one, or even a clear one, and the movement isn’t necessarily the best way to go about the process.

Even if Kali Yuga, the Age of the Holy Spirit, and the Aeon of Horus were all literally true, we would have no way of clearly delineating where one ended and the other began; Treta and Kali yugas would blend together at their edges and we wouldn’t know when we were for sure anyway. But if none of these are historical facts, they provide us with metaphors to guide us. They give us a framework for questioning the past and the present and comparing their responses. They give us a shorthand for what what we find best in humanity, for the potential we see in ourselves and in our society as a whole. If we are as cautious about it as conservatives claim to be, as pure-minded as Traditionalists wish they were, and as idealistic as progressives try to be, we can navigate our present and see our way forward. Learning from the past is one thing; obsessing over it — especially over a fictitious version of it — simply retards growth. Learning demands not only knowledge of the past, it also requires awareness of the present, and facing the future with openness.

Kali Yuga is the World of Darkness. Apparently, we live in it. We can deal with our sense of alienation — however it may arise for each of us individually — either by deepening our delusions or by trying to dissolve them. A lot of us who get involved in the occult and esoteric spirituality do so, in part, because of what we feel sets us apart. Whether we’re really much different from those around us, whether anyone else ever sees it, the choice of how we handle it is a personal, spiritual one. It will have inevitable consequences on how we interact with the world, but it is still basically interior. The World of Darkness games were obsessed with an impending Apocalypse, much as our own world. We may not have a choice in what gets revealed, but we do get a say in what we do with that information.

Next time, we’ll look a little more at what that means.