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.
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.ibid
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.
As I walked beneath the Moon tonight
We seemed to draw nearer one another.
The Lord’s great ropey knotted tresses
Revealed themselves a net of light
Trawling vast universes for those souls
By the cruelty of petty gods & pettier men.
Normally, I avoid current events in this blog — not because I have no thoughts on matters of worldly concern, but because I prefer for this blog to retain a sort of purity, to be timeless. A few of my recent articles have indirectly dealt with some of the fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic, but I tried to do so in a way which would have been useful even had that virus never arisen and will remain useful years from now when the world’s concerns may be quite different. Yoga, magic, and so forth, aren’t singular entities, but tool kits which need to contain more than a single hammer. This blog is something of an addendum to my own diary. The details which stay in my own journals are either irrelevant to anyone else, private to myself, or broadly fall into the category of what modern occultists have taken to call “UPG” — unverified, or unverifiable, personal gnosis. Only those insights of possible use to others which come of ritual, meditation, divination, or just plain old life experience, and which I feel I have the capacity to communicate by the written word, make their way here.
But we’re in strange territory, here. It’s not 100% unprecedented, as a lot of newspaper editorials seem to think, but it’s certainly rare. The events of the day aren’t such that I can pass them over without remark. Black Americans, and other people of color, as well as sexual minorities here in the States — including those of Latin and Hispanic descent, American Indians, those of Chinese and other Asian ethnic descent, homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people, and others besides whose names and titles I do not know or who I (apologetically) am currently forgetting — are demanding that their voices be heard above the din of those of us of (broad) European descent, and many of us (never enough!) are at last listening, stepping aside, and trying to amplify them. This is happening in the midst of the same global viral pandemic. Incredible numbers of people around the world are gathering in solidarity, as well as bringing this movement together with their own native struggles, in spite of medical risks; however we may feel about that part of it, the bravery is undeniable and admirable. I’m never particularly optimistic about mass movements, but this one looks (both on the ground and astrologically) to be a genuine turning point.
I myself am angered by the treatment of human beings at the hand and by the boots, cudgels, and bullets of other human beings. Whether for reasons of racism, nationalism, religious zealotry, or any other attempted justifications, this behavior and these ideologies are unacceptable. But here’s where things swerve neatly back to the project of this blog:
My anger does not arise from fear or hatred. It arises from love and the nondual experience of Yoga. I’m human; I feel fear, hatred, and anger like anyone else. But the yogi seeks to disentangle emotions and other mental and neurological processes from one another to spot their real source in experience. Often enough, this process will cause a lot of mental events simply to dissolve and their neurological correlates to calm themselves for energy to divert where it is really needed. Sometimes, though, the seemingly unmoored thoughts and feelings can be traced even further back to something yet deeper. Whatever their cause, mental events are movements in the substance of consciousness; these can be pathological (which is to say, arising from the kleshas) or they can be health-promoting. Ultimately, we seek stillness of mind, but while we’re here in both subtle and gross material bodies, there will be some jostling about; we’d best make it work toward our goal, undermining dangerous patterns rather than creating new ones.
Contrary to Western expectation, there is no obligation for the yogi to be kind everyone. That’s a fine enough ideal to hold for oneself, but it cannot be universal; each yogi has their own mission to fulfill and each guru their own teaching modality. Trying to fit them all into the same box will lead to disappointment at the least, and could well keep the student from their appointed teacher. Compassion, however, is a different story.
True, unconditional love and compassion arise from the nondual experience, from the sure knowledge that there are no “others” to speak of. But compassion doesn’t always look like kindness to all indiscriminately. Often, it looks like calling out or putting a stop to the unskillful behavior of others with precisely as much force as is necessary under present conditions. This only happens when we begin to examine root causes and start to learn which behaviors are usefully interfered with and which need to run their course. When doing so, recall that individuals have their karmas, but so do cultures, societies, nations, and civilizations. Roots may grow in many layers of soil, often all at once.
Karma is just what we call the web of causality which we each must navigate; like a spider’s web or a fisher’s net, those karmas woven tight are difficult to escape. Strands will snap when pressure is applied to them but only if they have been undermined, often by building small actions over time like the use of a file on thick rope. When the nets of both the individual and of some broader body like a church, a family, or state line up fatefully, it can be almost impossible for that individual to find a gap or a weak spot. And so the hard work of change comes upon us.
The principle of karma is that life is, at base, fair. This will raise some hackles for those of us who care about social and economic justice. But look back at the above paragraph and you can begin to unpack; fair and just aren’t always the same. We live in an inherently imperfect (as made visible by our lights) universe. Though this universe is a Self-revelation of God (Parama Siva, Brahman, Mahaivairocana-Buddha, the Unknown Father) and every minute speck of it is alive unto itself, it is yet one in which we are made to seek for the One behind and in it; hence why Nathas can simultaneously affirm that we are awash in the most obvious ocean of divinity and yet call this selfsame Consciousness Alakh Niranjana — the Imperceivable Spotless One. As I hinted at earlier, we each have our own “mission”. This is not merely some worldly assignment of the love-and-light sort, though for some it may take that shape; we each have our own particular and peculiar bondage to release, so each must be got rid of in a way unique to it. Often, this demands address and aid from other beings, physically embodied or otherwise. Not everyone is here just yet to find their Satguru — or perhaps they’ve already found and been found, but require interactions with the Guru in a variety of forms and phenomena. Thus it is likewise the commission of many of us to be those forms and phenomena, knowingly or not. Nondual compassion, then, is making the attempt to be that form with some awareness of our place in the Whole, and so when placed by fate in circumstances proper for it to aid others in dissolving their bonds, those karmas, kleshas, and konditions* which hold them from experiencing the Peace, Freedom, and Happiness which is theirs by right merely of existing.
The nondual experience of the Natha Yogi is absolute, but it is radical in that it does not flush away, obviate, or sublate difference and distinction; rather, it finds the plurality within nondual Reality and the nondual Reality in all particulars. When we catch so much as a glimpse of this Beatific Vision, we may begin to carry out our duties — svadharma — as the glories of our own wills — svatantra; such duty is no longer bondage but Freedom and Awakening. Pray and contemplate that we not only have this experience and carry the ever-widening cosmic vistas it permits us into our lives, day by day, in the way most appropriate for each unique phenomenal moment.
*”Konditions”, spelled with an initial k, was a humorous literary choice made by Shri Gurudev Mahendranath when referring to the variety of forms of social programming we each undergo. He referred to karmas, kleshas, and konditioning collectively as “the KKK matrix” which we each must overcome. I chose to retain Dadaji’s idiosyncratic spelling not only to honor the source of my terminology but also because “KKK” as a foundational set of problems seems satirically apropos.
made all the more cruel
of the One Needful Thing
for its shades and values
Watching the Sun rise
over Thames, Nile,
you catch glimpses
through the mist and storm
of mountains upon the air
And you wonder
Which peak is Meru?
Upon which do Sambhu
and Parvati sport
among the goblins?
In what foothills
do the Witch Queen
and windy Devil dance?
Exulting in Moonlight
or suffering by day
I feel each
as a lick by the tongue
of the Mother’s faithful tiger
Roughing away the scurf
of all actions, all patterns,
the sources of all pain
And here is immortality
You’ve seen me write in the past of my experiences with the so-called occult community — and you’ve likely gotten the impression that I am not especially dazzled by what I’ve seen. I do not intend to be overly negative, but frank discussion and honest conversation is how we grow.
Despite my underwhelming experiences with these groups, every few years I feel the urge to poke my head back in out of a very human need for common ground and socializing with those who can sympathize with strange experiences. I’ve made some very good friends this way, of course, but I by and large encounter some of the worst of humanity with each peek in the door.
For those of us with experiences which put us by default out of bounds for the constructed reality of our prevailing culture, there is this need for some sort of sub- or even counter-culture in which to feel more at home. There isn’t anything wrong with the impulse itself, but like most instincts it can lead us into trouble if we do not temper it with reason and experience. For most of us, social instincts lead us to tribalism and cliquishness, a tendency which may aid survival under some circumstances but when unchecked by other social feelings like empathy, compassion, and willingness to listen can easily become snobbishness, superiority, bullying, even bigotry.
Some years ago, my Guru warned me against being a cheerleader for other people. At the time, I was not sure what he meant by it — but as is common with the Guru’s insights it was soon made clear by events playing out before my eyes. Several prominent occultists — each author to several books and having strong followings — with whom I was acquainted and friendly began to reveal more and more their true colors. In some cases, it was as simple as pettiness arising from arrogance, but in some it was outright hatefulness barely disguised as spiritual aloofness. These in particular revealed themselves to be merely angry and afraid, hiding behind an above-it-all directness. A few such individuals, I’m not proud to say, I had been following closely and from whom I was seeking support and affirmation. Much of my public facing at the time was in some way supporting them or seeking their approval. Once the veneer began to peel, however, I understood what my Guru had meant and realized the foolishness of tying myself to the views and reputations of others.
Perhaps it is always so, but I am watching just now what seems to be an explosion of occult sycophancy. I’m watching my magicians, witches, and mystics — ironically enough — joining in on witch-hunts and cultish pile-ons, disguised of course as quite righteous defenses of those other bullies who disguise themselves as teachers and leaders.
Thus do the so-called mages and wise ones commit every error of the politicians and organized religions institutions they make such a show of criticizing or even combating (to what avail I have yet to see). I see professional spiritual workers making public sensitive private details of their clients to gain social capital in ways that even corrupt Catholic priests would find immoral; I see intellectual honesty being rewarded by mob attacks orchestrated by “elders” as fragile and afraid as any white male conservative they believe themselves above; I see sexual predators being defended in public by those who proudly declare a willingness to “believe victims”. What wisdom has truly been gained? What proof of attainment?
Groupthink, cheerleading, cynical self-interest, dishonesty, unself-aware hypocrisy — these are all obstacles for the mystic and magician, but they’re also signs of an immature mind. It is with great pain that we become aware of them in ourselves, made all the more difficult by keeping society with those who encourage and value them for the advantages they bring. Unfortunately we have in occultism a great many petty cult-leaders and would-be intellectuals we do not care who they harm if it shields their fragile little selves from reality for another day and plenty of willing subjects who are merely happy to have some Big Name’s approval.
My advice, if you want any, is to avoid public occultism in general. As you may be aware, other than this blog and my astrology practice I tend to keep to myself. But insofar as you choose to engage, be mindful not only of with whom but, more importantly, how and why you engage. If you see people set up as leaders and instructors falling into high school clique behavior, ask yourself what it says about them and their community. If you find yourself falling back on high school clique habits, give yourself a hard look and ask, “Why?” We’ve all been there, but why do we end up there? It’s an opportunity for growth when we notice it, but gone unexamined it can sink us like a lead weight — even if the people around us play along because they can get something out of it.
There’s truth in the saying that “power corrupts”, but it is a misunderstood truth. Power can’t corrupt in a vacuum. Rather, it allows us to bring what it is within us out, with the type of power determining precisely how it can show itself. Money is a type of power, as are political authority, academic respect, community organizing — the list goes on. If what a person has within them is compassionate (for example), having the power to put it into effect does not suddenly make the person a monster, but if the person had within them spitefulness, the more powerful they become the more they will enact that evil in the world and the less they will care about specific targets. When people say, for instance, “more money, more problems,” it isn’t that the problems actually multiply, but that they maintain scale with the level of wealth because the individual’s level of discipline with their money has not changed; it is the same with any form of power.
This all being the case, I am not condemning power but encouraging it. Improperly understood and incorporated into one’s thinking as an excuse for avoidance, “power corrupts” is a mighty tool in the hands of the haves against the have-nots. But let us not forget: magic, psychism, and meditation are all sources of power.
We have the Sanskrit word “śakti” which translates literally as “power”, and much like the English word power it is interchangeably used to refer to all manner of strength, force, and ability; śakti can grammatically indicate anything from raw physical strength to force of will to abstract energy to skillfulness. Of course, in Tantric Yoga we recognize all types of power as emanations of the One Power, Śakti with a capital Ś. Whether we approach Her as one Goddess or many goddesses or as an abstract force, we are each able to channel a particular amount of Her through our minds, bodies, and all other areas of our lives according to our karmas:
Perhaps I am born rich or become rich because I have done some work to open the way for wealth; or I gain political power because I have done what it takes (in this life or previously) to make myself a channel for this particular śakti; or, to get weird, maybe I have psychic power because I practice Yoga (whether or not that’s what I call it, whether or not it is in this life or due to work in another time) and clear out my subtle energy channels enough to send and receive information by them.
Take note that at no point above did I mention desserts. I don’t have to be a good person to attain any or all of the above, I just have to have opened the way for them in ways appropriate to each. The difference between a “good” person and a “bad” person is just the sort of internal pattern — what we might ordinarily call “personality traits” — allowed to come forth by the application of ability. A person born to wealth is neither automatically better or worse than you or I (assuming you, the reader, weren’t born to wealth; if you were, feel free to ask for my PayPal info), nor does it imply any particular intelligence, bravery, or skill in this lifetime (regardless of bootstrap-related claims).
In times like this, when many people feel distinctly powerless in the face of worldwide environmental degradation, global events, national politics, and economics which seem to be on an almost otherworldly scale, it important that each of us heals our own relationship with power. For many, it is a matter of bare survival to figure out which forms of power they can draw from; those of us who have a handle on survival for the time being also have the luxury of revising our entire mindset on the matter. We don’t need to be aiming at wealth, fame, or political authority in order to find the value in power. In fact, everyone will find that they want and need power in different ways because everyone will have a unique set of needs to fulfill. But this is precisely why many of us practice magic, Yoga, or other occult and esoteric arts and sciences. Maybe you are searching for comfort and meaning in a world which presently seems quite hostile to the individual, or maybe you are trying to build a world more suitable for your children. Even the purest of mystics require access to power; Mother Śakti is the only way to escape rebirth.
Whether your goals are personal, charitable, or spiritual — or, as with many magicians, witches, and Yogis, some amalgam of the three — powerlessness is not the way to achieve them. The more obstacles stand in front of us, the more power is needed to remove, destroy, or navigate around them. We must find, channel, and own up to the power we need, not avoid it out of fear, anxiety, or misguided scruples. As to those scruples: power need not be “power over”, as it is first and foremost “power for” and it is our thoughts, words, and deeds which determine the value of its manifestations.
Psychic Witch: A Metaphysical Guide to Meditation, Magick & Manifestation by Mat Auryn (2020, Llewellyn Publications)
I’ll be honest: I pre-ordered this one because I like the cover art. It evokes for me the experience of browsing the Metaphysics shelves at Borders or the New Age shelves at Barnes & Noble back in the ’90s. It’s got the sort of “soft spookiness” of a lot of books on Wicca and witchcraft from when I was growing up. For the same reason, though, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about it. The online marketing for the book was clearly not aimed at me. Besides that, I’m pretty out of touch from modern witchcraft literature these past many years. I haven’t been especially impressed with a lot of it that I’ve seen, given that much of it anymore is full of high-flown poetic language alongside extremely rudimentary magical practices. That’s more or less what I was expecting from Psychic Witch, and I would have been happy just to have gotten an entertaining, nostalgic read.
I did get that nostalgic hit I was going for; picking up a Llewellyn book on witchcraft with simple but evocative black-and-white artwork is an experience which always takes me back to youthfully exploring outre ideas, my first forays into goth rock, and heading out into the woods at dusk to search for local spirits. But I got a lot more than that.
I’m now actually working through the exercises of Psychic Witch, step by step, as described, and I’m finding the whole thing an excellent refresher. Not only that, the practices herein are helping me to fill in gaps I’d left myself over the years.
It’s important to say that if you’ve been around the occult for a while, there’s not much really new in Psychic Witch. Much of it is familiar to me from past work with witchcraft, Yoga, and Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics. The real benefit I’m getting out of it is a structured way of revisiting those aspects of psychic development which find utility in pretty much every other form of magical practice. Auryn’s step-by-step approach, founded in not only his own experience as a practitioner but also as a teacher, makes the material very digestible and applicable in a variety of directions. A favorite part of the exercises for me, and one which I know a lot of people will find helpful, is the focus on deepening one’s awareness with their own physical senses prior to, and as a baseline for, their subtle senses. In occult circles, it’s pretty common to try to make a leap over a perceived ontological gap between the physical and the “astral”, treating psychic and mental phenomena as somehow different in kind from bodily ones. Auryn cuts this error off at the source by grounding everything in the experiences we all know through our familiar old corpses.
For those newer to the practice, the same factors will make Psychic Witch an excellent next step. Whether you’re brand new, or have already done some work, you’ll find a lot of growth here. You won’t need much in the way of tools or materials to get through the exercises. Even the “spells” toward the end of the book rely on the the inner skills you’ll have picked up by that point rather than on exotic ingredients or complex rituals; those familiar with some of the better examples of New Thought will find a comfortable fit. The metaphysics of the book are similarly accessible. Auryn eschews the use of any particular cosmology or theology in favor of a paired-down and relatively universal approach which makes the practices easy to slot in to just about anybody’s core practice — or even to use it as a core practice until one finds their place.
While Psychic Witch is specifically marketed toward witches, it neatly recommends itself to any practitioner of magic or anyone desiring to be one. Beyond that, I will be suggesting it from here on to anyone asking for a good place to start their magical training. Auryn’s friendly voice and the sensitivity with which he adds experience upon experience and the sheer essential nature of the material make Psychic Witch a new standard for core occult training and, for me, a very pleasant surprise.
Click here to purchase your copy while helping me and your local independent bookstores all at the same time!
With an uptick in general stress levels, I’m seeing an increase both in the idea that emotions are uniformly to be despised and, on the flip side, that every emotion is worth sinking into in the name of self-care. Even here we find our society polarizing; ever was it thus! And, as ever, the truth — by which I mean the most helpful, actionable position — lies somewhere in the excluded middle.
Approaches from Stoicism to Christianity to Buddhism are often rallied to the claim that human emotions are somehow beneath the superior or spiritualizing individual. Vedanta and Yoga can also easily find themselves so abused. A close reading of the primary sources involved, however, finds much more nuance in their positions.
In the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius — one of the most important classics of Stoicism, and certainly the most influential for the average modern reader — we find numerous instances of the good emperor expressing a very deep experience of his own feelings and passions. While he seems to be of two minds on their value, he does not ignore them. A friend and self-described Stoic once opined to me that he found even Marcus’s desire to keep such a journal to be a sign of uncured vanity, and thus a failure of Marcus’s Stoicism. To me, this is a rather extravagant interpretation; philosophy should not make a person inhuman, but encourage the better parts of their humanity. It perhaps says more about the observer’s need to judge Marcus’s looking for a means to explore his own experiences while leaving his insights to posterity than it says about Marcus’s success or failure in his philosophical endeavor.
More in my wheelhouse, we have the common notion of detachment found in Yoga, Vedanta, Samkhya, Buddhism, and on and on; more or less every spiritually-oriented Indian philosophy, whether Hindu or otherwise, gives some attention to detachment. Those in the West who immediately embrace it tend to do so in the same spirit in which my friend misconstrued Stoicism; for them, detachment means apathy and apathy in the modern sense of simply not caring. A bit more charitably, many such individuals perhaps see repression as the only alternative to license.
Others, however, take detachment as license. This interpretation is founded in the relativistic notion that since nobody can know for sure what is a good or an evil action, any action may be performed by the mystic so long as it is done with detachment or “lack of ego”. The Karma-Yoga of Bhagavad Gita is often cited as support. Again, this is a misreading. Lord Krishna is only speaking of the performance of unpleasant duties in a spirit of surrender as a means to purify the mind; material consequences still accrue from actions taken in this way even if the psyche is made more free thereby. It is quite a stretch to take from this the idea that any and every fleeting emotion should therefore be indulged. An Avadhuta or Mahasiddha may act in any way they wish; for the rest of us, “Do what you will, but choose wisely!”
Emotions are emotions; feelings are feelings; thoughts are thoughts. There is neither inherent good nor inherent evil to them. They are functions of our bodies and minds. While changeable, they have purpose in survival as well as motivating a number of higher pursuits. They cannot be dismissed out of hand, and repressed emotions universally go septic as they churn in warm darkness below the surface of the psyche. Detachment is for the Yogi the healthiest angle of approach. The truth of detachment is simply that we recognize that emotions are emotions; feelings are feelings; thoughts are thoughts. We neither indulge nor repress them, but learn to observe. This way, we redirect the energy of our emotions into the very act of observation itself, not only gradually starving potentially distracting or destructive cycles of their motive force but also learning about what lies behind those processes in the first place.
Feeling our emotions and thinking our thoughts is not the problem. The problem is in letting them run away with us. They must be acknowledged just as bodily sensations must, and just the same they must be appropriately gauged for severity, diagnosed, and treated for what they signify rather than for what they look like on the surface. Here is much of the work of Yoga.
Not long after the last article went public, I received an unrelated text message from a close friend asking me about day-to-day methods for managing anger. Working a public-facing job as I do, I’ve become somewhat expert at that, though that’s not to say I always do it perfectly. But this does return to our previous topic: calming the mind is a gradual process. Certain activities (or substances) may calm us down temporarily, but what we really need to do is build the habit of calm. It takes time and effort, but we can certainly get ourselves to the point at which calm is the norm and anger, fear, panic, anxiety, hatred, and so forth are exceptional. The very same process will eventually parch the seeds of those mental states — though that degree of restraint will take most of us far longer to achieve. If you are having difficulty with one of these afflicting mental fluctuations, please first re-read that last post linked above. For those of you who have already read it but want a brief reminder, it is this: awareness of your own mental and emotional patterns is already a huge step toward resolving those patterns, while knowledge of consistent effort over time as the only way of building healthier patterns is a tonic to despair and frustration.
But if you’re not already a meditator, what are the options for putting this into practice? More to the point of my friend’s question, what can be done during normal daily life to cut these harmful patterns off before they really get moving? In answer to these questions, here is a three point plan for managing these afflictions in our lives. Note that these are not graduated steps, but concurrent aids and constant tools. They all work best when used in tandem and daily.
This one isn’t easy in isolation, but makes a necessary adjunct to the following two. This method simply consists of paying attention to your own mind and behavior. Granting that this isn’t always easy when in the midst of anxiety or anger, you can usually spot the moment your response is triggered. Do not discount how important this is! While a seemingly small realization, finding that split second of transition from self-controlled functioning to semi-conscious adrenaline beast is a big step toward creating the sort of hairline crack into which the wedge of free will may be inserted.
Once you’ve discovered this transition point, start inquiring into it: What does that transition feel like? What are the physiological and psychological signs of it? How do you know when it has gone beyond the point of no return? For example, when my anxiety is triggered, I immediately feel the muscles in my upper back and neck tensing up. This is my moment to stop the cycle. If I allow it to continue, I will feel a flutter move through my body (likely the moment when adrenaline begins to pump into my system in a big way) and I begin to feel angry; I’m more of a “fight” than “flight” sort of person, so I prepare for a conflict which now feels inevitable. I have found over time that I can catch myself here, as well, though the space is much smaller. If I do not, my vision will blur and everything will appear as if I were looking through a red filter. At this point, I just have to ride it out and mitigate as best I can. Your pattern may be similar, but could be quite different; the important thing is to keep your wits looking for your own cues and make note of them. The more familiar with them you become, the better able you’ll be to use them in future instances.
Japa is a practice common to Yogis of all stripes, as well as religious Hindus and Buddhists. Simply, it is the mental repetition of a mantra. Tantric and yogic literature love their folk etymologies, analyzing the roots of words (usually in Sanskrit) in such a way as to draw out their esoteric significance. One such interpretation of “mantra” is “man” + “tra”, with “man” being short for manas or mind, and “tra” meaning “protector”; ergo, mantra means “protector of the mind”.
There are two principle ways of applying japa which for convenience I’ll call sitting japa and walking japa. Sitting japa is a form of simple concentration, or contemplative prayer for those of a devotional bent, in which you sit in a comfortable, straight-backed position, and regulate your breathing by repetition of a mantra. The procedure is as follows:
- Sit cross-legged on the floor, using a small cushion as a wedge beneath your sit-bones.
- Close your eyes or fix them in a relaxed manner upon a single point (a dot on the wall, the image of a holy personage or deity, a candle flame, the burning tip of a stick of incense, whatever).
- Breathe in by pushing your belly out and out by relaxing your belly; do not suck air in or force it out, as this causes further tension and can trigger anxiety. Try to keep your in and out breaths the same length without straining. Take a few such breaths to get a good rhythm and to begin breaking down tension.
- Repeat your mantra inwardly; depending on the length of the mantra, repeat it one or two times at a leisurely pace as you inhale, then the same number of times as you exhale. Keep your breathing pace regular and relaxed; adjust mantra repetitions to your breath, not the other way around.
- Use a rosary or japa-mala to count off your repetitions; a standard mala has 108 beads, which is traditional, though 18, 33, 54, or other symbolic numbers are suitable. Orthodox Christians sometimes use a knotted rope or string to count off prayers; this also works if you do not have a mala. Some yogis also use their right thumb to count off the joints of their little, ring, and middle finger of their right hand, equaling nine; the thumb of the left hand can then be used to count off each group of nine on the joints of all four fingers equally 12 rounds or 108 total repetitions. Choose the method which is most suitable to your situation. Counting is not strictly necessary, but is a good way of ensuring that you spend around ten minutes on the practice; you can also set a timer for 10 or 12 minutes, or start with 5 minutes and work your way up. Don’t sweat such details; use what aids you and discard what gets in the way.
While the goal is to concentrate your mind on the mantra alone, do not strain at it; if you find your mind straying from the mantra, gently return your attention to it and continue. Over time, this will become more natural and you will have less trouble with it. Even with some experience, however, you will have days of distractions and will have to catch yourself from time to time. Don’t worry over it; just keep going.
I recommend sitting japa once or twice a day, morning and/or evening; it can be done as a lead-in to the simple meditation given below.
Once you are accustomed to your mantra in sitting japa, you can bring it with you into your every day life. The procedure is very simple: when you have no need to be focusing on any other mental task, chant the mantra inwardly. That is, when you are not writing, speaking, or otherwise having to focus on anything else, repeat the mantra in your mind. If sitting at a desk waiting for the next task, or taking a leisurely walk, you may wish to join the mantra with your breath in a relaxed way; if walking at a brisker pace or something of the sort, you may instead repeat the mantra on its own cycle regardless of breath. In any case, make the mantra the centerpiece of your mental environment; return to it as soon as a task is done.
Walking japa can be a massive help in driving the wedge of free will into an apparently intractable mental event; not only does it give you mental breathing room throughout the day, you may also begin japa the moment you notice an internal triggering event. It may not entirely halt the pattern, especially early in your practice, but it will still provide a little distance which can be key in extricating yourself from the situation before it gets out of hand or at least reminding yourself that you have a choice in how you respond. Again, the idea is short-term interruption and long-term weakening of old patterns and the building up of new, healthier patterns.
Choosing a Mantra
A mantra is traditionally given by one’s teacher, but this is not always an option. Here, I present a small selection of mantras suitable for anyone’s use. Though any of them can be further empowered by a Satguru’s blessing, they do not require a Guru.
Om Gam Ganapataye Namah (pronounced something like “om gung guh-nuh-puh-tuh-YAY nuh-muh-huh) is the seed mantra of Ganapati (Ganesha). In addition to aiding in concentration, this mantra is helpful in removing obstacles, opening pathways, and pacifying local spirits.
Om Namah Sivaya (pronounced “om nuh-muh she-VAH-yuh) is the core mantra of Lord Siva, the Absolute Consciousness. He is known by many names and titles, including Bholenath, the Lord Who is easily pleased, and the name Siva itself means “auspicious” or “good”.
Om Amrta Tejahara Hum (pronounced “om um-rit-uh TAY-juh-HA-ruh HOONG”) is one of the mantras of the Buddha Amitabha; it is said that anyone who faithfully chants his mantra will be reborn in his Pure Land wherein it is significantly easier to attain enlightenment. Other versions include the Japanese Namo Amida Butsu, Namomitabhaya Buddhaya, and Om Amitabha Hrih.
Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me is suitable for Christians; it is known as the Jesus Prayer and is commonly used for contemplative prayer among Orthodox Christians.
While the above include Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian options (and many other religious traditions present possibilities, including the Sh’ma Yisrael of Judaism) it is not necessary to be a “believer” to make use of this technique. Choose the mantra above which resonates most with you, or another one from your own tradition and get to work; for the present purposes, it is the capacity of mantra practice to aid in concentration which is most important.
3: Zazen & Shikantaza
Shikantaza, Japanese for “just sitting”, is perhaps the simplest form of meditation there is. But simple isn’t easy! For most people who try to jump right into it, such a practice can be a form of physical and mental torture. The goal of shikantaza, insofar as there is a “goal” at all, is to simply remain aware; over time, obstacles to awareness dissolve on their own simply through the power of relaxed consciousness of them. But we must work our way there.
- Sit as you did before while doing japa. (Note that you may use your japa session as a lead-in to this meditation.)
- Breathe naturally; if your breath gradually changes during the practice, that is okay, but avoid sudden shifts if you can.
- Keep your eyes open and relaxed; with your neck straight, let your gaze drift down so that you are looking at the floor about three feet in front of you or else at a blank patch of wall, an icon of your choice, candle flame, burning tip of incense, or any other place to rest your vision. You may also close your eyes, keeping them either slightly down-turned (if you are stressed or anxious) or slightly up-turned (if you are drowsy or weary). Different sources will tell you that one or other of these is the “right” way to do things; try both and decide for yourself which gets you the better result.
- Once you are settled in, begin to mentally watch your breaths. Mentally follow your breath as it enters your nose, flows into your sinuses, then back and down into your lungs; follow it as you exhale, rising out of your lungs, through your trachea and sinuses and back out in front of your chest.
- With each cycle of in-and-out, count; once you reach seven or nine (choose in advance which you will use), start again at one. Inhale, exhale; one. Inhale, exhale; two. Inhale, exhale; three. And so forth. There is no need to count the total number of cycles or track how many times you reach the full count before starting over.
- As you continue this counting, allow any thoughts, emotions, or sensations to simply arise and set of their own accord. Notice them and continue breathing and counting. If you find yourself having been drawn away from your breath and your counting by any given thought or sensation, simply acknowledge it, return to your breath, and start over at one.
It is a good idea to establish a specific period of time for practice. A traditional method is to watch the tip of a stick of incense and continue practice until it burns itself out. Of course, setting a timer and placing it out of sight so that it does not distract is also a possibility.
Again, I must emphasize that none of these methods work overnight — though I don’t discount the possibility of certain results coming quickly. What is most important is consistency over time. Those two factors in tandem can do great things, but if either is neglected the whole thing falls apart. If all of this is new to you, begin with any of the above three points and add the others in as you feel comfortable doing so; I find that japa is the easiest place to start, but begin wherever feels most natural for you. Most importantly, wherever you start — keep going!
The state of restraint is when there is a disappearance of outgoing samskaras and the appearance of restraining samskaras. These emerge in the mind at the moment of restraint. The mind’s undisturbed flow occurs due to samskaras.Patanjali, Yoga Sutras III.10
We often speak of “enlightenment” as if it were a sudden, once-and-done event that arises as if from nowhere. We all know that there’s more to it than that, but our language around it can be very misleading. This is because we tend to treat all mental events this way; every thought and emotion is as if unique, spontaneous, and uncontrollable. I haven’t allowed myself to become angry, I was made mad — that is to say, forced into anger with no input or recourse. But like so many things in our lives, mental states are a matter of cause-and-effect and they follow clear patterns.
Meditation is the process of stilling the mind so that pure Awareness may shine forth in its nakedness, and this is achieved through graduated degrees of concentration. While this is framed in many ways, one of the more precise ones comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Patanjali focuses throughout his teachings on the psychology of Yoga and not so much on metaphysics or theology. For Patanjali, meditation is the exercise of weakening those samskāras — mental patterns — which turn the mind outward by generating and strengthening samskāras which turn the mind inward.
The use of this model is not only to gain more intellectual understanding of what one is doing, although there is practical value to that. More immediately the understanding of the presence of these samskāras is useful for warding off despair. We will have many apparent failures on the path of Yoga, 100% of them the results of outward-tending samskāras. As we discipline ourselves and push forward, however, we will encounter more and more sits during which our minds successfully turn inward, and those will both lengthen and deepen. Of course, we will continue to have shallow or distracted sits, but they will become less common and easier to overcome. When we understand that we are working with subconscious patterns, we can then more consciously engage with them with the knowledge that such things don’t change overnight.
This is a universal lesson; it applies to every sort of mental pattern, even those which we don’t immediately relate to our spirituality. Magicians can of course avail themselves of this perspective in determining how best to facilitate concentration during their operations. More importantly, everyone who meditates, for whatever purpose, may learn the value of consistency and of being realistic in their expectations of themselves; discipline is a good thing, but it can too easily cross over into self-flagellation.
Moreover, in times of stress and trouble we must remember that external circumstances trigger the activation of samskāras. People with strong fearful samskāras will likely respond to stressors with fear, and so forth. Meditation is a tool for overcoming these patterns, at first retraining them to something more useful and, eventually, doing away with them to allow for genuinely spontaneous decision-making. It can be a great help to remind ourselves of the nature of this process frequently, for even this small step grants us the little mental gap necessary to observe such patterns in action and so perhaps stop them before they activate or simply sit with the activated patterns rather than letting them run wild.
In troubled times — and all times are troubled! — take your toolkit with you into the world. Meditation is not merely what we do on the cushion. Internally chanting mantra (japa) is a simple way over time to generate that much-needed mental distance which allows us to observe our own patterns at work rather than being carried away by them.
Om Namaḥ Śivāya