With Cunning & Command

In this interim between regular posts, I wanted to draw attention to the blog of some friends of mine: With Cunning & Command, written by Sfinga and Salt.

While their readership is likely at least as large as mine already, it is also probably a bit of a different audience. That’s part of why I wanted to bring it to the attention of anyone who reads me: Salt and Sfinga take a very different approach to my own, but one which is demonstrably effective. While I am first and foremost a Yogi — with all magic engaged in as an aid or adjunct to my Yoga, a Tantric approach of participatory worship — these two are sorcerers to their bones.

Salt has proven himself to me a more than competent talismanic astrologer and a brilliant geomancer; I strongly recommend thinking of him if you would like a Geomancy reading. He also engages in a lot of ceremonial magic based in the European grimoire tradition.

Sfinga is a traditional witch, spirit-worker and Balkan Zmajevit-woman with insight and power rather underdone by the word “impressive”. She also experiments with the legacy of the grimoires, among other methods.

Together, they are producing a blog which dives deeply into today’s glutted marketplace of magic books to bring their readers both reviews and, more interesting, post mortems of their magical experiments. It is, and I may be biased, one of the best blogs on Western magical practice I have encountered; the practical experience and depth of knowledge of Sfinga and Salt is truly something special and they communicate it well. If you are a Western-style magician, or if you just want to get authentic perspectives on those methods for your own edification, With Cunning & Command is very worthy of your attention.

Mercury Retrograde: A Constructive Approach

As we approach a period of Mercury Retrograde — as of this writing, the next Mercury Retrograde will begin on Monday, July 8 2019 and last through the end of the month — it is pretty common to see people on social media panicking about it; once into the retrograde period, you equally have people pinning every problem in their lives on Mercury without ever wondering if perhaps they could have done anything about the situation. When a lot of people talk about astrology, they speak in terms either of inescapable fate or else inexorable power which cannot be overcome or mitigated; it is understandable, then, how much of the audience would get the idea that there’s nothing to be done for the situation and just suck it up and deal with the misfortunes as they come.

In a separate article, I will soon discuss fate and causality in relation to astrological factors, but for now it’s worth stating the core tenet that our choices do matter. Astrology does not negate freedom of choice, but shows us more of the context in which we make those choices. This context includes not just the world around us, but our own bodies and minds which while not constituting the essence of who and what we are nevertheless determine in large part how our individualities may be expressed. As each of us is different in our manifestation, so do astrological factors impact us differently.

Two major astrological factors are planetary transits and planetary dasas. A dasa, unique to Indian Jyotish, is a period of planetary rulership unique to you; your dasas are calculated entirely dependent upon your natal chart, so you will begin your life in a different planetary dasa than will I; even if we are the same age, the present period of our lives will have different planetary rulers, so the planet(s) which presently rule for us will be the lens through which all the rest of our experience will be focused and by which our lives at present will be colored. Transits are both individual and universal. When a planet moves relative to the Earth, that will look the same for any observer on Earth (Mars entering the sign of Pisces, for example), but the way in which the movements of these planets actually impact our inner and outer lives depend on what those same planets are doing in our natal charts as well as our present dasa. Horoscopes in newspapers about what a Sun-in-Taurus individual has in store for them this week or posts on Twitter about what it “means” as the Moon transits out of Cancer and into Leo are usually close to worthless for us (except for some magical applications, but that’s a very different, very detailed topic in its own right). If these factors aren’t being situated within the very unique context of your natal chart and your present dasa rulership, the planetary transits themselves are all but meaningless.

When a planet, most famously Mercury, goes retrograde, we are describing a transit situation: the planet appears to be moving backwards in its orbit relative to our perspective on Earth. This, of course, is an optical illusion, as the planet continues to move in its orbit just as it always has, but astrology is always interpreted according to the planet on which it is being done — as far as we know, always from Earth. This means that apparent motion is more important for an astrologer than actual motion. When a retrograde occurs, the planet apparently moves backward in its procession through the Zodiac so, for example, Mercury entering retrograde early in Leo (as he will on the 8th) will seem to move back into Cancer before once again processing through Cancer and Leo in turn.

During that backward portion of Mercury’s motion, we interpret Mercury’s influence a bit differently. He turns his energy in upon himself. Ordinarily, our natal Mercury tells us about our own capacities to communicate, to act skillfully, to make our ideas manifest in the world. In short, Mercury is the sum total of our ability to get things done. When moving backwards, he obstructs all of these things like a cement-mixer truck backing up a one-way street. A cement-mixer is an extremely useful thing, but when it’s being used poorly or placed in the wrong context, it’s at best a barrier, at worst a safety hazard. But Mercury doesn’t do this just to piss us off. Sure, it does piss us off, make us sad, and whatever else comes of it, but all to the end of turning our gaze inward. But that only works if you and I, as individuals, are willing and able to choose to look inward. Yes, astrology is ultimately about our own self-knowledge and responsibility. Precisely how Mercury will manifest for you, whether retrograde or not, will depend, as I said earlier, on how Mercury looks in your natal chart. But it is still up to you how you choose how you relate with Mercury.

In astrology generally, we talk about remediation: those things we can do to improve our relationships with those planets which give us trouble or to strengthen the ones which are weak influences for us. In Vedic astrology in particular, we call our approach to remediation Graha-shanti or “making peace with the planets”. While this is of general utility, it is also an especially useful way to soften the experience of Mercury Retrograde and allow yourself the opportunity to better understand what it is Mercury is trying to get across to you.

There are a number of Graha-shanti techniques which all work well, but I tend to prefer one method or another depending on whether a person’s relationship with a planet needs to be strengthened, the planet itself has a weak influence in their life, or the planet is overly harsh with them. In the case of Mercury Retrograde, those people who have trouble are generally experiencing Mercury as overly harsh. As such, building a more productive relationship with him is very likely to help — both during the retrograde period and throughout life.

The following method is usable by anyone, regardless of training and background. Ideally, the yantra should be made with appropriate materials at an astrologically elected date and time, but in a pinch it can be done with paper and pen on the day of Mercury (Wednesday).

At sunrise on a Wednesday, offer a lit candle, sweet incense (frankincense, sandalwood, or honey amber are always good, as is sweetgrass), clean water, and some combination of fresh fruit, milk, and honey. As you set out the offerings, lighting the candle and incense, and so forth, chant the mantra to Ganapati: om gam ganapataye namah, pronounced with short a’s making an ‘uh’ sound and namah with an extra aspiration, “nama-huh”.

Draw the yantra of Mercury (below) on a piece of paper; if possible, frame this paper and keep it for later use. Set the yantra up somewhere clearly visible from where you are sitting or standing. If you have a regular shrine or altar, it would be appropriate to keep the yantra there, and to make your offerings there as well.

Mercury Yantra

Making the anjalimudra (the gesture of prayer, hands pressed together with the fingers pointed upward in front of the chest), begin to chant the Mercury mantra: om bum budhaya namah, pronouncing all u’s like the one in “put” and an elongated ‘a’ in the middle of budhaya, like “bud-HA-ya”. Repeat this mantra a minimum of 28 times, but preferably 108; if you have a mala for counting mantras, use that in your right hand with your left resting on your thigh or making the gesture of no-fear (hand held palm out with the fingers and thumb extended with natural spacing between them). When the chanting is over, you may spend some time in quiet contemplation.

Before you stand up or remove anything from the working area, give two sharp claps to close. When finished, the candle can be pinched out, the incense left to burn itself out, and the food and drink offerings consumed or given to others in your household as blessings. The yantra can be kept for later; you can consider making a smaller version of the yantra and, after performing this puja over it, carrying it on your person, such as in your wallet, purse, or briefcase.

If you have consistent Mercury-related difficulties (problems communicating, difficulty being heard and understood, trouble while traveling, inability to translate your ideas into practical actions, etc.), you can sit in front of the yantra each Wednesday and chant the Mercury yantra before you leave home. I especially suggest making the offerings as described here on the Wednesday immediately before Mercury goes retrograde and, if your situation is difficult enough, each Wednesday or even each day throughout the period of retrograde.

This simple puja and japa (mantra chanting) should bring aid to the situation, making Mercury Retrograde a less stressful period for you. Feel free to pass this article along to anyone you know who has a tough time when Mercury moves backwards. If the problem persists or is especially bad, however, it is probably time for an astrological consultation.

Astrology as Sadhana

The science of Astrology is the key to Her vast kingdom and the Oracle is Her voice and our understanding.

~ Shri Gurudev Mahendranath

Astrology — or Jyotish as it is known in Sanskrit (literally, “study of light”) — is looked upon with some combination of whimsy and scorn by most in the modern West. It is true that more and more people are taking an interest in the topic, but for most it remains a parlor game or an icebreaker. It may not be as common as it was in the 1970s to ask a prospective date, “What’s your sign?”, but entire natal charts get bandied about on Twitter along with image macro memes of someone doing some horrible thing and the individual posting it saying, “That’s so typically [insert Sun sign here],” or, even worse, “That’s just how we [sign] are!” as if a person’s natal chart justifies rather than gives context to poor behavior and destructive thinking. Alongside all of that, you have astronomers and astrophysicists occasionally jumping in to explain to everybody that “astrology is fake”, “pseudoscience”, “superstition”, or whatever, painting astrologers and their clients with the same brush as Young Earth Creationists.

Unfortunately, most of “astro-Twitter” doesn’t do a fantastic job of shaping up astrology’s image. This isn’t entirely the fault of the people involved, as the medium of Twitter and similar social media simply aren’t conducive to deep discussion. Nevertheless, the arguments persist with both sides sounding like ideologues and petulant children.

In Hindu thought, Jyotish is treated as a science. This often strikes the Western ear a bit funny, so to put it in context, Yoga is also called a science. Both of them are properly scientific in the sense of being empirical: Jyotish and Yoga are based in observations of repeatable experiences. I’m sure any materialist who has stumbled upon this will sneer at that last statement, but who cares? “Scientific materialism” isn’t a real thing because science as a process doesn’t support materialism terribly well, so we can all just move right along.

I don’t study and practice astrology because I came in “believing in” it. Quite the opposite, in fact. In my youth, when I was trying out all sorts of occult and spiritual bits and bobs, astrology immediately proved itself useless to me: every book on it I found at the time seemed empty of value, and the interpretations I read never fit with my experience. (For example, I was always told that because I was born with my Sun in Taurus I was extremely materialistic and obsessed with luxury. If you have ever met me, you know how laughable that is.) This attitude persisted for well over a decade. The symbolism of the planets was useful to me in practical magic, and the planetary days and hours served their purpose in timing certain magical operations, but natal and predictive astrology still seemed like bunk.

That is, until I encountered the astrology of India.

Indian astrology, Jyotish, seemed to have more interpretive depth and mathematical precision. While results obtained with Sidereal placements still didn’t seem quite right, things were at least much more correct this way, enough to make me suspect I had missed something worth the investigation. And here’s where the Guru shows his light once again.

As I spoke, impressed, about the increased accuracy I’d found in Indian astrology complete with its Sidereal calculations — so much better than Western astrology with its Tropical placements — Guruji Sri Kapilnath piped in with a correction and a recommendation: Not all Indian astrology uses Sidereal calculations, and perhaps I should look into the writings of Ernst Wilhelm. Knowing that Kapilji was a very accomplished astrologer himself, I was immediately intrigued enough to follows his direction. That’s when I found drastically increased accuracy, at times almost paranormally so, and I have never looked back.

This aside into my own history as a jyotisha has been necessary to come to the place astrology holds in my life. Yes, it is a skill which makes me money; in fact, I hope for it to become my living. But Jyotish is so much more.

I have come fully to accept that Tantra is incomplete without it. More, Tantra is a shell of itself without Jyotish. While it is true that there is no bad time to worship God if the honest inclination is there, specific applications of Tantric methods are enhanced considerably by appropriate astrological timings. This one can confirm for themselves, just as I have. Tantra and astrology also go together in the methods of remediation: there are many complex and expensive Vedic approaches to the remediation of difficulties indicated in a person’s birth chart, many of which are well out of reach to the average person no matter where in the world they may be — much the same problem with most facets of Vedic religion. But Tantra is by its very nature accessible. That’s not to say it is easy or requires no work, but it is effort within the reach of those who are truly in need of aid.

Even more immediately, astrology is an incredible tool for the self-knowledge demanded by Yoga. The natal chart obviously provides a window onto the nature of one’s own body and mind, but more importantly the very study of astrology itself teaches the astrologer lessons about the nature of body, mind, spirit, and soul which might take decades or lifetimes otherwise. It is a more complete and direct approach to the mysteries of karma and prana than is available in any other practice or study I’ve found outside of the samyama of Yoga itself — and even that is considerably aided by having the subjects of concentration provided by astrology.

Jyotish is thus a remarkable boon to the magician, the Yogi, the curious individual who wants to know more about themselves and to develop proactive strategies for life. It is psychology, philosophy, metaphysics, theology, sorcery, and sadhana all in one, and according to the need of each. I am still pleasantly surprised with each chart reading I do how much useful information I’m able to dig out for my client; not only do I help them to learn about themselves, I learn more about myself, the world, and God.

Energy & Entity in Hatha Yoga

I generally deemphasize Hatha Yoga. It isn’t necessary to yogic attainment and it seems to be an active hindrance for a lot of people who become distracted by it. The Natha tradition is strongly connected, both conceptually and historically, with Hatha Yoga — the systematization of Hatha Yoga was, after all, a Natha innovation within India and all Hatha classics, such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Siva Samhita are Natha compilations or at least credit Sri Gorakhshanath as their primary source. That said, for Nathas themselves Hatha Yoga serves three functions:

  1. Keeping the body in shape amidst hours of meditation & ritual;
  2. Keeping the subtle energy channels clean and clear to aid meditation & ritual;
  3. Keeping monastic and eremitical Yogis busy.

In our Western context, only the first two are immediately relevant, though the last shouldn’t be discounted: Hatha Yoga is at least a better use of our time than a lot of passive forms of entertainment, though taking a walk in a wooded park does most of us at least as much good.

As to points 1 and 2, these are important but can easily be made too much of. One need not be an Adonis to be an effective Yogi or magician. Good physical health certainly reduces distractions and obstacles to one’s practice, and so should be pursued and maintained conscientiously, but stretching and taking long walks is an effective means without having to tie one’s body into knots in the process. Reasonable exercise, a moderate diet, and natural, relaxed breathing — possibly aided by taking certain herbs — already go a long way toward subtle health without having to resort to difficult and potentially dangerous breathing exercises. None of this is to deny Hatha Yoga’s unique combination of benefits. It is just that combination itself is unique, not the benefits individually.

It is at the level of subtle energy that I think Hatha Yoga shines most brightly, and at this level the most benefit can be gained. While they must be approached cautiously, a variety of breathing exercises are especially effective for magicians. A few simple and safe ones (see below) make very effective daily “cleansing” practices and can even be used to clean up simple curses like the infamous Evil Eye. For working magicians (which, like it or not, includes those who prefer to call themselves healers, psychics, shamans, astrologers who include remediation in their practice, and any magician, mystic, or occultist with community ties), such a method of hygiene is an indispensable tool in the toolkit as it requires no equipment, no preparation time, and can be done anywhere with nothing more than a corner or public restroom to retreat to for a couple of minutes. I have many times used the method given below on the grass in wooded parks, sitting in a coffee shop chair, and in a free moment at work. If you have any dealings with spirits at all or do any sort of energy work which can throw your internal balance off — which, between the two, pretty much includes every type of mystic and magician there is — keeping the subtle system clean is incredibly important. Rituals, herbs, and whatever else you may use in your practice are certainly good to keep up, but sometimes, “in the field”, those things will not be available and as a daily practice nothing beats something you can efficiently integrate with your other practices and responsibilities.

A final point about Hatha Yoga which does not receive any attention at all in modern classes and books is that, whether we realize it or not, Hatha Yoga involves spirits and deities. Any time we are dealing with so-called “subtle energy”, what we are really dealing with is consciousness taking different shapes and focusing on different movements (literally and figuratively). This, of course, is your own consciousness as the individual whose physical and subtle bodies are being exercised in Yoga, magic, and so forth, but it is also the myriad of spirits and deities who are also involved the process. The more deliberate we can be in our dealings with them, the better will the energy flow when and where we need it to.

Everyone already knows something of Kundalini, and She is the most significant example of what I mean; as the Trika Yogi Swami Lakshmanjoo put it, “Siva is not the path; Sakti is the path.” A detailed discussion of Kundalini will have to wait for its own article or series of articles, but She at least opens the present topic with a hint of familiarity.

Myriads of spirits and deities can be mentioned in this connection. Some modern Yoga teachers do talk about the various deities associated with the major cakras along the central channel of the body, but they are usually framed as symbolic constructs or mere aspects of the individual psyche. It is important to understand that while the gods are in one sense within the psyche, they are not limited to the individual mind. It is better to think in terms of the gods projecting in and through certain centers of energy in us and those centers of energy containing the gods in question. Magically speaking, each cakra is a gateway to a particular loka or world; this is true alongside the meditative experience of each cakra being a gradation of individual awareness and the Hatha Yoga reality of whirlpools of subtle energy performing or facilitating various psycho-physiological functions. All of these levels are true simultaneously, without contradiction, and they are perfectly interwoven such that a poor relationship with the deity whose loka is reached through a particular cakra has a negative impact on the individual’s health in relation to that center and their capacity to engage with the associated mind-state.

The channels of subtle energy themselves, those which connect the major and minor cakras and which run out from those centers to the organs and extremities, are ruled generally by the Nagas — a class of largely cthonic spirits associated with a certain Underworld, with flowing water, mental activity, and with venomous serpents. Yogis are themselves traditionally connected with the Nagas, sometimes merely culturally but often very literally as Yogis tend to develop relationships with the Nagas. The Buddha, Bodhidharma, and a number of other famous Yogis of India, China, Tibet, Thailand, and Nepal have had direct dealings with the Nagas, sometimes as friends and sometimes as adversaries, while sorcerers and Tantrikas of these same regions are known to make deals with them and try to keep them peaceful for the benefit of their clients and communities. While this is all literally true, it’s also important to see the inner value: just as with the deities of the cakras, if the Nagas are poorly disposed toward the individual, their Yoga (both physical and meditative) will suffer, as will their health. Subtle energy channels can be cleaned and strengthened through propitiation of the Nagas, and angry Nagas can very much cause problems not only in the subtle energy system but also in the physical body by way of the nerves, blood vessels, and digestive tract — all channels ruled by the Nagas.

With all of this given, even the casual Hatha Yoga practitioner would do well to explore more deeply into the human energy system, the subtle bodies, and the relationships of gods and spirits which interweave them. It is only through these that the real inner development, peace, and magical powers promised by the classics of Hatha Yoga can be realized, as Hatha Yoga was originally intended to be practiced as part of a broader and deeper Tantric program.

Purifying Breaths

If possible, sit in a straight-backed, cross-legged posture on the ground or floor. If this is not possible, get as close to it as possible, prioritizing ease of belly breathing over other concerns. This is especially suitable for use immediately before and/or after any other meditation or magical work, as well as at the end of a day out in the world. You can also use these at any free moment throughout the day if you feel the need to recenter, refocus, and psychically shower. I use it during particularly exhausting days, after having dealt with parasitic people, and usually before any physical exercise, energy work, or pranayama.

Put your hands on your knees and begin to breath slowly with your belly; your shoulders should not rise much, if at all, as you breathe in. Once you have a comfortable rhythm, turn your attention to any areas of physical tension; with the next three breaths, direct your attention to them in turn, releasing the tension as you exhale. Repeat this process with the next three breaths, but turning your attention to any areas of your body in which you are holding emotional tension. With the next three breaths, making nine in total, do the same with focus on areas of the body in which you are holding mental tension.

You don’t need to limit yourself to nine breaths with the above, though at least nine breaths should be used to relax sufficiently. Take a few moments between the two phases of this process to feel your body, returning your breath to any areas of retained tension as needed before moving on. If possible, do not rush.

Men and women must use mirrored practices for the next nine breaths; men should use their right hand and women their left. All of the instructions which follow are written for men, as I am a man myself and this is how I do the exercise, but for women simply reverse every instruction related to the nostrils, energy channels, and colors. If you are a trans person or in some other way have a different gender identity than those at the base of this practice, you will have to experiment to see which way works best for you. As far as I can tell, these exercises do not depend upon gender identity but upon one’s sex at birth, but my sample size is admittedly rather small, so try for yourself to see if you seem to get better results using one way or the other. The same is true of all energy work, Tantra, and Yoga practices which depend upon polarity; biological sex at birth appears to be the deciding factor, but it is possible that a significant enough hormonal shift could reverse this and only further experimentation will tell.

Close your eyes and visualize your body as being entirely clean and clear. Within it, instead of the myriad vessels, organs, tissues, and bones, you instead only see the three major energy channels: the central channel is about a pencil’s width just in front of where your spinal column would be, running from your perineum all the way to the crown of your head; the right-hand channel runs from the right nostril, up and curving back behind the right eyebrow, then running just next to the central channel; the left-hand channel runs just like the right one, but from the left nostril. The two side channels do not run all the way down to the perineum as the central channel does, but instead merge with the central channel about four finger-widths below the navel. Do not worry about the details of colors, cakras, and so on for this exercise; it is more productive to see all of the channels and so on as perfectly clear and open, like tubes of diamond running up and down your crystalline body.

Raise your right hand, pressing the tip of your thumb against the base of your ring finger. Press your right nostril shut with your right ring finger and as you inhale visualize light green vapor entering your left channel through that nostril. When the inhalation is complete, move your finger to close your left nostril and gently exhale light blue vapor from your right nostril. (Again, if you are a woman it should be the left hand pressing the left nostril, etc.) Repeat this sequence for a total of three cycles.

The next phase is like the first, but this time press your left nostril closed (still using the right hand) and breathe in green light through your right nostril. Then, move your finger to close your right nostril and breathe out pink vapor from your left nostril. Again repeat for a total of three cycles.

For the last sequence, place your hands palm up in your lap, right hand first with the left hand on top of it. For those accustomed to using dhyāna mudra, resist the temptation to arch your thumbs; just let them rest with your other fingers. (Women put your right hand on top of your left.) Breathe in the light green vapor through both nostrils, but this time when you exhale, visualize a gray smoke shooting out of the crown of your head from your central channel. Again, do this for a total of three cycles.

At the end of these nine breaths, spend a few moments in simple calm before moving on to anything else or returning to your day.

The green vapor you breathe in during the nine purification breaths is pure vitality, pure prāna; as you inhale it, it cleanses the channels through which it moves of psychic grit and grime. When you breathe out light blue vapor, you are exhaling impurities associated with excessive masculinity (such as rlung- or vāta-related illnesses and obstacles related to the past); when you exhale pink vapor, you are exhaling impurities associated with excessive femininity (such as illnesses of pitta and obstacles related to the future); the gray smoke you breathe out through your central channel is composed of impurities having to do with unclean or hostile spirits and illnesses of kapha. You do not need to worry about accidentally exhaling too much of anything, as the exercise will only remove excess or, more precisely, only the impure aspects of the energy in question. The body and mind are thereby strengthened and not weakened, as the subtle forces are able to move more efficiently rather than getting stuck or pooling up where they are not needed. The idea is to keep everything moving and not stagnant.

Even this simple series of breaths is a form of Hatha Yoga. You will immediately note how much simpler and less prone to cause injuries and imbalances it is compared to most of what you might learn in modern yoga classes. While Hatha Yoga can get very intense for certain purposes, most people do not need such practices most of the time. It is generally best to use the gentlest effective methods, especially where health is concerned. Ruin your health and you will find that your entire practice falls apart.

The Five Sources of Pain, Part 3: Approaching the Kleshas

The obstacles on the spiritual path are obstacles in all areas of life. We call them the sources of pain and suffering not just for Yogis and mystics but for every person. Yoga tends to place them front and center, however, so the Yogi needs to have a solid understanding of the Kleshas going in or risk being blindsided. Similarly, the practice of magic seems to exaggerate the role of the Kleshas in the magician. Any involvement in spiritual or occult study and practice therefore benefits from a practical understanding of these knots within us.

My last article, which may have struck some of you as unrelated to the series as a whole, concerned the elements and some of their major relationships with one another. This addendum was necessary to ensure that we have a shared vocabulary for the present discussion: how can we usefully deal with the presence of the Kleshas in ourselves?

The first step is to figure out which Kleshas present the most direct difficulty for you. Forewarned is forearmed. If you have gone through any sort of elemental inventory — such as that found in Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics or its like — you will have an immediate sense of where the sources of pain fit into your own life. Similarly, the prominence of the planets and signs in your natal chart can give you a working map of your inner territory. Excesses and gaps of elemental forces discovered in this way show precisely which Kleshas will be the most immediate and extreme obstacles for you.

While the Kleshas are not precisely elemental, there is a close enough correspondence that the elements can serve as both a map and a point of contact. For starters, compare the pentagram in the elements article with that in the first post of this series. You will see there a correspondence, thus:

  • Space to Ignorance;
  • Wind to Attachment;
  • Fire to Ego;
  • Water to Clinging to Life;
  • Earth to Repulsion.

Much as space among the elements, Ignorance is the root and context for the other four; in a real sense, it is the Klesha, the other four being more particular forms of it. Attachment is the first outward movement of Ignorance as the awareness identifies itself with external objects. This identification gives rise to Ego as a limited sense of self is built up from bits and pieces of the world; this colors the light of awareness and generates a worldview, however complex or rudimentary. Ego begins to experience fear of its own dissolution which results in Clinging to Life. Clinging to Life results in an instinct of Repulsion against that which appears to be a threat to the Ego-identity. Repulsion supports Ignorance by keeping at bay any and all experiences which could serve to adjust, modify, or throw out what one thinks one knows.

So much for the relationships mapped onto the pentagram. The cycle of feeding — the circle around the pentagram — also exists among the Kleshas. Ignorance feeds the Ego by blanketing the soul’s own self-knowledge, necessitating a hasty reconstruction of its own identity out of whatever parts happen to be within reach. Ego feeds Repulsion by giving that instinct something to protect; if Ego is the keep, Repulsion is the fortress wall around it. Repulsion feeds Attachment by demanding a constant stream of identifiable externals to fill the gaps left by everything the wall keeps out. Attachment feeds Clinging to Life in that the more externals with which we identify, the more we fear death which separates us from them. Finally, Clinging to Life feeds Ignorance by keeping us from examining anything which we feel to be threatening.

As with the elements, reversing these relationships shows us a route to starve or dissolve the relevant Kleshas. This is not as straightforward a task as it may at first seem, but it does give us a place to begin. Any effort toward what Franz Bardon calls Elemental Equilibrium is a help in reducing the severity of the Kleshas as a whole. This is a positive insofar as it makes daily life smoother and has positive effects on one’s magical practices, but it does nothing toward the end of dissolving the obstacles altogether — one way of defining the goal of Yoga.

Meditation is the single greatest tool in dealing with the Kleshas. Silent meditation, zazen, mantra japa, and so on, all work toward the goal of dissolution. However, more focused ritual practices and discursive meditation approaches can speed the process up significantly. The next article in this series will explore a couple of these methods in detail. For now, though, I leave you with a simple puja — literally “veneration”, “honor”, or “worship” — of the Lord who overcomes obstacles, Ganapati.

You will need:

  • An image of Ganapati;
  • A small bell;
  • A candle or oil lamp;
  • A vessel of fresh water;
  • A sweet-smelling natural incense (sticks and cones are fine);
  • Fruit, candy, or sweet pastries;
  • Fresh flowers (optional).

Establish for yourself a small altar to Ganapati. If you already have a working space, you may simply set up an image of him there, whether a framed picture or a small statue as befits your space. It is perfectly acceptable to (respectfully) put this image away when not in use, though you may very well find that as you build a relationship with Ganapati you wish to keep his image in a place of prominence: on your altar, in your living room, facing your front door, etc. A pentagram may also be placed near or on the Ganapati image or worn on your person during the practice as a reminder of the Kleshas and the awareness which burns them away.

Give three sharp sounds from the bell, then let it fade completely away before putting the bell back on your altar. Know that you are offering space.

Dedicate the candle (white, orange, red, or yellow) or oil lamp (especially if it burns ghee) to Ganapati. Light it. If you can do so safely, hold it up before the image of Ganapati and make clockwise circles with it between yourself and the image while chanting the mantra Om Gaṁ Ganapataye Namah.* Know that you are offering fire.

Set the light back on the altar. Use its flame to ignite your incense, then repeat the procedure with the smoking incense. Know that you are offering air.

Offer the water in a similar fashion, making clockwise circles with the cup before Ganapati while chanting the mantra. Know that you are offering water.

Finally, offer the food in the same way. Know that you are offering earth.

Sit, with your eyes open and unfocused or closed and relaxed, and continue to chant the Ganapati mantra for as long as you feel inclined. I recommend a minimum of nine repetitions on days when you do not have much time.

As the sound of your final pronunciation of the mantra fades, lapse for a time into silent meditation. You may transition to any form of meditation you usually practice, or else just sit in abidance for an amount of time that feels appropriate.

When finished, extinguish the flame by snuffing or pinching it out. You may drink the water yourself as a blessing; if you do not, pour it out respectfully. Let the food remain (covered or uncovered, as appropriate to the type of food) over night and eat it or distribute it to others the next day as a sacrament. Let the incense burn itself out.

I suggest performing this puja more than once. If possible, make it a daily habit for at least 40 days. Otherwise, it makes a wonderful weekly practice, especially on Wednesdays, monthly on the 4th lunar day (New Moon being day 1), or irregularly just before significant magical or yogic practices are begun.

*Pronounced more or less as “Om Gung Guh-nuh-puh-tuh-YAY Nuh-muh-huh”.

The Elements: Addendum to The Five Sources of Pain

pentagram displaying the generative and supporting cycles of the five elements

Generative and supporting cycles of the five elements

Last time, I went into a good deal of depth in defining each of the sources of pain and how they can manifest. If you haven’t read the first two pieces in this series, I suggest that you do so, though the contents of this post can stand alone.

I imagine that everyone reading this is already familiar with the idea of the classical elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Some in the West add a fifth called by various names and conceptualized quite differently depending on your source; it may be called ether, spirit, mind, quintessence, azoth, prima materia, or any number of other things, but there is generally at least an assumption of a fifth element which somehow transcends and unites the classical four. These five are then mapped onto a pentagram. There are a number of ways to do this, as well, but the better ones place emphasis on how the elements relate to one another when doing so. The Indian system of elements which I prefer to use is very much the same.

Referring to the diagram above, if you are familiar with popular forms of Western occultism you may immediately notice the difference in elemental attributions on the points of the pentagram. Clockwise from the top, they are: space, fire, earth, air, water. (For reference, the common Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn attribution would go clockwise: spirit, water, fire, earth, air.) The lines of the pentagram represent one of the major relationships between the elements, and the circle commonly inscribed around the points of the pentagram shows the other. More on this as we progress.

Before we enter into the elements individually, we must have an answer to the question: What are the elements really? From the perspective of physics and chemistry, they are not atoms in the modern sense because we have a reasonably long catalog of those, far more than four or five, and the modern atoms are divisible (making them, by definition, not atoms). According to some Indian sources, the elements are indeed atoms — properly indivisible — much subtler than our instruments are capable of detecting, possibly subtler than physical instruments are in principle capable of detecting, but responsible for all physical manifestation.

A phenomenological approach prefers to say that they are the atoms of experience, neither fully material nor fully mental but somehow bridging the two realms. This is the Yogic perspective which sees the elements as real forces which are themselves purely subjective but without which the whole category of “object” (in the sense of that which is observed or experienced by a subject) could not exist. These elements are known in Sanskrit as mahābhutas — literally “great existences” or even “big ghosts”. This hints at their quasi-material nature while also underlining their significance in human experience.

Even more subtle than the mahābhutas, however, are the tanmātras. There isn’t room here for a full exploration of those, but as it is necessary to mention them individually as part of the discussion of elements it’s worth defining them for those not familiar with Indian philosophy. “Tanmātra” is often translated as “subtle element” but may also be rendered “trifle”, “essence”, or “potential”. While the elements are atomic in a physical sense, it is possible to divide them further into the sensory data they encode: these sensory data are the tanmātras. As matter becomes more and more subtle, fewer and fewer senses are capable of giving us an apprehension of it. For Yogis and magicians, this includes the so-called astral or psychic senses as well. For example, earth is detectable with all five senses while water is too subtle to be smelled, and fire cannot even be tasted but may still be felt, seen, and heard. The tanmātras are therefore the purely subjective interiority of the mahābhutas.

Space (ākāśa) is the origin, ground, and contextual matrix of the other four elements. It is both the void in which everything takes shape and moves and the potential-substance out of which the other elements arise. It is the essence of movement, and so the manifestation of time: change must occur in relation to something in order to be measured and space supplies this omnipresent relationship. Space is detectable only through the sense of hearing or, more precisely, the sense of vibration which we usually notice as sound but which we can also feel in our organs and “in our bones”. Uses of sound in ritual such as mood music, bells, drums, and so on, are effects of space and bells and drums are often played as etheric offerings in puja. As this all extends to the psychic realm, even imagined sound is used as an offering in Tantric ritual. If something more steady or tangible is necessary as an offering, flowers are common as a way of gently drawing attention to a particular point in space: flowers making a circle around the working area, around the altar, or around the image of the particular deity invoked, etc. Space gives rise directly to wind simply by giving it a context in which to exist. All that movement and change require in order to exist is opportunity. Space supports and feeds fire in the same way; fire needs space in which to spread, always outward from its center.

Air or Wind (vāyu) is yet grosser movement within space. This usually manifests as heat, so the sense of temperature differences — but also “touch” or “feeling” in general, though these are also sometimes considered to be merely extensions of hearing — is the tanmātra associated with air. Wind, however, can be apprehended both by hearing and feeling. Ritual offerings associated with air are mostly breath itself, which is often symbolized by incense; though the smell is more to do with earth (see below), the movement of the smoke rising from the heat is symbolic of wind. Air gives rise to fire through intensification of heat and feeds water by moving things out of place and forcing combinations.

Fire (agni) is fully manifest energy; where wind can move things about, fire transforms them. Fire, of course, emits heat and it makes noise while doing so, so it is apprehensible by the senses of touch and hearing, but it also emits light which is its defining tanmatra. Every source of light in the universe is therefore a form of fire, and this includes psychological levels: fire also represents the conceptual ability to shed light on ideas and experiences, thus transforming or refining them. Technically, this tanmatra is not light but form; light reveals form in its fullness, though, so light often stands in for form — but know that anything which reveals form is related to fire. Naked flame is the best ritual offering to do with fire, and other offerings may be given up to the flame if appropriate and practical. Ideally, the flame (candle, lamp, pit fire) should be the only artificial light source (as in, other than the Sun, Moon, and stars) during meditation or ritual practice. Fire gives rise to water by clearing away obstacles to its flowing and producing a midpoint between itself and its opposite of solid earth. It also feeds earth by transforming substances into one another; consider the soil cycle which requires the transformation of dead organisms in order to release chemicals for new and existing lifeforms to grow.

Water (jala or apa) is the first experience we tend to recognize as matter: gas and liquid are both fluid states which water represents. Wind is not gaseous matter in particular but movement in and through space. Water introduces the tanmatra of taste — rasa or “essence” — which is the most intimate of the senses for the need to absorb a bit of the substance being tasted. While water can be apprehended through sound, touch, and sight, it is characterized by taste. Purely physically, it is the presence of saliva and other liquids in the mouth which make it possible to taste foods. The best watery offerings, then, are liquid water, wine, or fruit juice as flavor either potential or realized. Water gives rise to earth by introducing inertia, and feeds space by its tendency to passively take the shape of any space into which it is placed without the need to actively expand to fill it.

Earth (pṛthivī or bhumi) is the possibility and fact of solid matter and of anything that plays the roll of “foundation” or “bedrock”. It is manifestation, fully; while water may provide the possibility of fluids, without earth to provide all forms of cohesion even the chemical atoms and molecules which make up matter would not be possible. It is possible therefore to refer to earth as “gravity”, provided we do not confuse it with the purely technical sense of modern physics but as all tendencies to come together and cohere. Psychologically, it is also something like Nietzsche’s “spirit of gravity”, though it must be understand that this is not purely negative but has its necessary function in keeping the personality together during day-to-day life. Earth is available to all five senses, but is characterized especially by smell as relatively large particles of a substance are necessary for smell receptors to be able to detect them and this shows how far along we are in the process of materialization. Earthy ritual offerings include the scent of incense or, especially when some material result is required, fruit, pastries, candy, or even meat. Earth does not give rise to anything else, being the most dense of the elements and the final principle of manifestation, but it does provide the equilibrium necessary for continued movement in space to be meaningful. Earth feeds or upholds air by providing a counterpoint to it, the still object by which movement is made meaningful and which provides the solid base against which moving objects may push off or strike.

If you reverse either the cycle of feeding or that of generation, you will see the cycles of undermining or starvation and that of dissolution. Just as too much of an element during the generation and/or feeding cycles can throw the process out of balance and require other elements to compensate, too little of an element also requires compensation and generally brings exhaustion. Nevertheless, the dissolution cycle has its productive use in spiritual practice as exemplified in Raja Yoga, Chan/Zen, Dzogchen, and similar practices.

Just as the Indian attributions of elements to the points of the pentagram differ from Western sources, their planetary associations in astrology and astrological magic are also different. This may not be immediately relevant to all readers, but enough of you will likely find it interesting enough to be worth a brief survey.

Unlike Western astrology, Jyotish does not associate the two luminaries directly with the elements. While the Moon rules over water and the Sun rules over fire, the Moon and the Sun are not “watery” or “fiery” because they project those elements rather than presiding over and being influenced by them. When reading a chart in which one or both of the luminaries is exceptionally significant, the corresponding element is likely in the native’s life in force, but usually in a more primal and polar manner than is the case with the other planets. Franz Bardon’s “magnetic fluid” and “electric fluid” make good stand-ins for the elemental influence of the Moon and Sun, respectively. That leaves us with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.

According to the sage Parashara in his Hora Sastra, Mercury is the planet of earth, Venus that of water, Mars of fire, Saturn of wind, and Jupiter of space. There is a reciprocal influence, here: each planet, as an intelligence and deity, presides over its corresponding element and is most strongly of that element and therefore influenced by its nature. In brief, we can say that Mercury is the planet of manifestation (which includes but is not limited to thinking, designing, and communicating); Venus is the planet of taste, essence, vitality, and fertility; Mars is the planet of strength, energy, courage, will, and transformation; Saturn is the planet of disease, disorder, aridity, coldness, roughness, loss, and the steadfastness necessary to weather all of these; and Jupiter is the planet of generosity, expansiveness, order, legitimate authority, and learning. The elemental associations are rather obvious in these attributions.

The same cycles we examined for the elements above, those of generation and of feeding, are equally true of the planets in their elemental ordering. Jupiter therefore gives rise to Saturn as order automatically creates disorder and as the expansiveness of space leaves gaps of cold aridity; Saturn gives rise to Mars as the will, courage, and aggression which develop in the face of hardship; Mars gives rise to Venus as the vitality needed to carry out Mars’s will and the desire to give it constructive form; Venus gives rise to Mercury by providing much-needed vitality and the will of Mars filtered through a sense of beauty and taste all to the end of bringing something to manifestation in the world of shared experience; finally, Mercury gives strength to Jupiter by providing the wealth and knowledge upon which generosity and authority are founded.

Similarly, Jupiter’s providence, knowledge, and meaning give purpose to Mars in his strength and courage; the power and will of Mars fuels the skill and intelligence of Mercury; Mercury’s creations feed and are necessitated by the depredations of Saturn; Saturn’s harshness inspires beauty in a healthy Venus; and the beauty, vitality, and artistry of Venus inspires the sense of meaning which feed Jupiter.

While these cycles are not aligned with the parentage of each planetary deity in puranic myth, and there is plenty of useful information to tease out of these myths, the present diagramatic cycles are intended more to display relationships between the powers and faculties represented by the planets in the individual’s makeup — being especially useful in spiritual, psychological, and physical health matters. These relationships are also very important in astrological remediation and magical methods. So, for example, if one’s Mars is quite weak or afflicted, it is likely that the native’s space is starving their fire; we can then quickly determine that propitiation of Jupiter by way of donations or service is in order, followed by strengthening of Mars with a talisman to restore healthy fire. Similarly, a weak Venus starves Jupiter of the experience of beauty and liveliness which allows for a sense of meaning, so strengthening Venus will give Jupiter a greater capacity to bring his gifts into the native’s life.

In the next article, we will see how these same relationships apply to the Kleshas and begin to explore how we can actually make use of them.

Meaning of Fires on Earth & in Space

Very soon after I found out about the Notre Dame fire, an acquaintance posted the following to a private occult forum:

Sun in Aries squaring Saturn conjunct Cauda Draconis in the 4th house (real estate). Mars in the 9th house (religion).

Scrolling through Twitter a bit later, I saw a few other astrological posts about the devastation of that grand cathedral and then, quite quickly, as many from scientists and “science fans” proclaiming that astrology is obvious bullshit and astrologers are all delusional, superstitious idiots, or else grifters and frauds. It was as obvious as it was petulant; it was the dictionary definition of “too soon”.

Astrology is a common tool of humanity, a means of digging out meaning from the events of life and finding out our part in the universe.

Now, be honest: Did you have an immediate eye-rolling response to that last sentence? Do phrases like “search for meaning” and “our part in the universe” immediately strike you as clichéd? Rest assured, the astronomers of Twitter and readers of “IFuckingLoveScience” agree.

What is the rest of humanity missing that these Children of the Enlightenment see?

The answer, I’m afraid, is a stark, dead universe lacking in poetry.

Astrology, of course, is not the only approach to meaning; it just happens to be a particularly useful and effective one. Magic, mysticism, religion, poetry, and art all perform this duty. Even the sciences do so when they are pursued to sufficient depth. To paraphrase Gordon White, if you go deeply enough into anything, it becomes theology.

And here we come to one of the great persistent points of confusion which makes such a discussion necessary in the first place: How do we define meaning? Even the words we have to use to phrase the question cause problems. Meaning, like pornography, is a know-it-when-you-see-it proposition; it is not a fact but a sense. Very importantly, meaning is not the same as explanation.

Isn’t it interesting that when a child asks an adult, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why did grandma have to die?”, the immediate response is not to discuss the “why” but the “how” or the “what”? The sky is blue, of course, because of light refraction caused by atmospheric moisture and particulates, and grandma had to die because she was very old and her immune system was weak so she got sick and couldn’t fight it off so that was that. The answers to those questions famously do not satisfy the child, who then asks another “but why?”, and rather than rethinking the problem, the adult merely gets annoyed and keeps giving more of the “how” and “what” until both are frustrated.

It should be clear from the fact that we have different words for them that “why”, “how”, and “what” are different questions. “How” is about process; “what” is about substance; “why” is about meaning. And meaning, it turns out, is so fundamental to our experience that the child’s first impulse was to ask after it! Why are we adults so bad at responding in kind?

As more information, video, and photographs of the Notre Dame fire started to hit news sources and social media, there were also more and more posts berating people for being sad about it or imputing less than noble motives behind the emotional outpouring. Some of these were transparently political, such as insistences that sadness over the collapse of Notre Dame’s roof and endangering of its contents was hypocritical in light of the crimes of the Catholic Church — an observation which ignores all of those odd little bits of meaning like history, art, architecture, skill, and labor. But others were simply based in the accusation that many of the mourners around the world had never even visited Notre Dame, aren’t French or Catholic, and so forth.

But, again, this ignores the deeper truth of the situation. People who may have never even thought of entering through the doors of Notre Dame before have been slapped suddenly with a strange sort of existential realization that perhaps the option has been revoked entirely and, more intense still, one of the greatest efforts and creations of human genius has just burnt to cinders before the eyes of the globe. If it can happen to a protected historical landmark, it can happen to anything, anywhere — or anyone, for that matter.

One thing that astrology and the Notre Dame fire both do is remind us of time, of change, and of eventual destruction, death, and decay. At their best, however, both cathedrals and astrology also remind us of the vaulted heavens, of the smallness of our bodies but the infinite expansiveness of our souls, of the endless outwardness of the cosmos and corresponding inwardness of the mind. Whether or not the cathedral is rebuilt as it was, whatever was or wasn’t able to be saved, it can never be rebuilt exactly as it had been — and it was never the same from moment to moment anyhow. The same is true of our bodies and minds. Just as the Notre Dame roof caved in, just as our skulls will eventually collapse from heat or the weight of centuries, yet the space within both simply rejoins the space from which it had been (only ever apparently) separated by the confines of stone and bone.

Here, then, is meaning.

We could have a whole other discussion about the accuracy and usefulness of the information gained from astrology — such as the smaller but still notable fire in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in all of Islam, at the same time as the Paris blaze — but for as great as that is I find the greatest benefit to be gained from the study of astrology is what I learn about myself and about the connection I enjoy with the cosmos which I share with every other person for whom I conduct readings. This, too, is meaning, above and beyond the facts.

It is not my goal, here, to convince anyone of the non-bullshit nature of astrology any more than I care to prove to you that music is a discipline worth keeping around. The fact is that they both arise from something intrinsic to the type of sentience which not only sees itself of the world but also sees itself as in relation to the world. In a civilization which sells meditation as a productivity tool and does not have words for the worth of something which do not immediately and semi-consciously tie it back in with assumptions of capital and materialism, I despair of anyone who does not simply have it to be capable of gaining the understanding of meaning-as-such distinct from what-and-how processes. Philosopher of religion Jeffrey Kripal insists that such a shift in perspective requires that a person be “flipped” by the weight of bizarre and numinous experiences; a fundamental revolution in many peoples’ way of living in the world is required to let them tell the difference.