The Heart of Freedom, part 3: What We Give Back

If we want to be healthy and blessed with long life we must become like Jupiter—generous, joyful, and wise. Generosity is about overcoming our habituated self-centeredness, our sense of limitation, of fear of the future, of not having or being enough. […] In this we imitate the Masters we wish to be like, and in doing so, fulfill the function of Assumption of the Godform, not as an image, but as a real, living, breathing act.

~ Mark Stavish, Child of the Sun: Psychic & Physical Rejuvenation in Alchemy and Qabalah

Just as there are some who enter the spiritual Path wondering, “What’s in it for me?,” there are always those who wonder, too, “How do I use this to save the world?” I’m not going to sugarcoat this point, because it deserves being made forcefully and forthrightly: You don’t. It is not your job to save the world (and from what?), but it is your job to be available to the people of the world and to be of benefit to them.

Śri Ramana Maharshi was fond of using parables from everyday life to illustrate the subtler points of sādhana, of those practices which clear the obstacles between ourselves and wakefulness. One that he employed on many recorded occasions concerned our responsibilities to the world as they relate to our spiritual practice: Two men board a train at the same station and are headed to the same station in another town. One of these men holds his bags for the entire trip, worrying over them and straining to ensure that they reach his destination with him. The other man sets his bags down in the appropriate holding compartment and leisurely watches the landscape go by as the train speeds along.

It is sometimes easy to misunderstand Ramana’s teachings, seeing as how most of us in the modern West lack the context of a Hindu upbringing with its attendant (at least passing) knowledge of the need for preparatory religious practices and philosophical study to understand and properly apply many of the sādhanas discussed so casually in his terse discourses. That being so, it may seem as if the parable is telling us to forego our responsibilities, relaxing and pretending that they aren’t there at all. In fact, he has given us a sophisticated diagnosis of our problem and prescribed a treatment for it all in one tight package.

We have a tendency to want, on some level, to carry our baggage endlessly. We almost revel in our emotional problems, showing them forth as what makes us unique and special, demanding that they be accommodated and sheltered rather than plucking them out by the root. In any case, we fret over them, and fretting just makes them bigger and heavier—if not actually, then at least in our perception. If, however, we set them down and allow the process of our spiritual practice to move us along, everything that we need to reach the end with us will come along for the ride. In short, it is all too easy to put our effort into the wrong thing out of fear and anxiety, but that only increases the fear and anxiety.

Tooth-gritting heroics rarely do much long-term good. Muscle-flexing can create a bit of breathing space, but as soon as your arms tire out, you’ll find yourself quickly surrounded. Gnosis is not about what you learn as much as what you unlearn, what you clear away so that Reality can shine forth. Very often, then, it means knowing when you can help and when you cannot, when effort will be useful and when it will be wasteful. In the Yogi-sampradāyas of Patānjali, of the Siddhas, and the Nāthas, we recognize five kleshas, five afflictions which, like knots, bind us up. All five of them are obstacles here.

Ego, attraction, and repulsion are the middle three afflictions. Ego, in this context, is not merely the sense of “I am”, but the ongoing process of mistakenly identifying yourself with all manner of things which are not really you at all. Whenever someone asks what you do, and you immediately respond with, “I am a lawyer,” or “I am a construction worker,” or any similar formula, you are displaying ego in this sense. The same is true, though, if you say “I am a Catholic,” or “I am a Hindu,” or “I am a Republican,” or, well, you get the idea. These identities can be useful if we consciously wear them as the costumes they are, but we usually wear them in such a way that we forget who is wearing the costume and think that only the costume itself is the real person. This leads inexorably to attraction and repulsion, by which we say that one thing is good and another bad, one thing clean and another dirty, according to the expectations of the costume-identity rather than the individual wearing the costume. Now is not the time to get into the depths of nondualism, wherein nothing is inherently unclean (aghora), but it is enough to say that we might instead focus on the usefulness of a thing and forget about questions of inherent goodness. Might a thing be applied skillfully by us in order to enable our own awakening and the awakening of others? If so, we may call it provisionally useful and move on. If not—whether by the nature of the thing or by our own lack of skill—we may safely leave it aside for someone else to handle.

We might say that the final two kleshas, the first and the last in the usual order, are both root and fruit of the three above. Ignorance is the primal klesha, the one which gives rise to the other four, but ignorance is also reinforced by them. The final klesha is “clinging to life”, which may also be stated as “fear of death”. Clinging to life is the fruit of the preceding four, but it is also firm and strong enough to support them, thus bolstering their power. Ignorance contains the other four kleshas in seed form, as potential diseases, while clinging to life contains them as a plant must contain the genetic information which guides its growth and the nutrients which fuel it. (The observant may see a direct connection to the five elements in this discussion. Useful experiments may be performed along these lines, and I am writing a book about exactly this line of work.)

Now, here’s the kicker: The stronger the influence of any klesha upon me, the worse I will be at being of help to anybody else in any absolute, lasting sense. This is precisely why we cannot seem to shake our most fundamental problems in human society. We are always acting from within the kleshas. Look, for example, at how technology is increasingly concerned with “curing” death. You have Google and other firms dealing with artificial intelligence who have explicitly set for themselves the goal of digitizing “human consciousness” so that, after a person’s death, their personality can still be around in the form of a computer program. Within medicine, researchers are feverishly predicting the inevitability of bodily longevity by way of all manner of pills, injectables, and genome treatments. Rather than dealing with quality of life, the concern has shifted to quantity, as if a long life were inherently better or more meaningful than a short one packed with artistry. “Curing death” is of less inherent value than effective cancer treatments; when a person is dead, the quantity of their life is no longer a concern, while the quality of their life has enduring impact (whether or not one accepts survival of consciousness), but cancer reduces both quality and quantity of life. This is a very fundamental shift in focus deserving of our attention, but it also serves as an example of how the kleshas flavor our every pursuit.

Spiritual practice is no different in this way from any other human engagement. It is so common for egotism or greed (attraction) to drive our spirituality that whole books have been written about this topic alone—for instance, Chӧgyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. In Western alchemy, the term “puffer” has been applied to those who were more concerned with the gold which came out of the transmutation than with the transmutation itself. And then there are the megachurches, the Vatican’s thrones of gold, and the Prosperity Gospel salespeople… The list could continue endlessly, wrapping itself around the world just as it weaves its way throughout human culture in every geographical point through which it passes. The point is this:

Not everyone is destined to create a global organization which impacts the lives of thousands or millions through charity. Most of us will do far better in improving ourselves, awakening ourselves, so that we will do more good in our immediate community. Even if we could start those global organizations, they usually become corrupt very quickly once legally incorporated and flowing with funding. Movements become denatured or defunct once their founder retires or dies. You can’t save anyone else if you can’t save yourself. This is neither cold pragmatism nor bitter cynicism. When goodness flows, it flows through an individual, not through a legal abstraction or a mob. Whether or not the movement of goodness seems “fair” to you, it flows like water, and like water it needs to be pressurized through the plumbing of a single human being if it is to have enough force to accomplish anything. One of the main functions of spiritual practice is to first clean out one’s own plumbing and learn to properly maintaining it so that when the pressure does flow, we don’t suffer a blowout. The takeaway from all of this is to work on yourself, do what you can do within your own community—however you define that, though the more local the better—and don’t fret over what you can’t control. If the world is to get any healthier, that is how it will happen.

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The Heart of Freedom, part 2: Spiritual Practice & Its Benefits

Being a magician is a stage in the process of developing spiritually. It is not the height of development; in fact, it is only a step in the first part of the range of real human development.

~ Draja Mickaharic, from Practice of Magic: An Introductory Guide to the Art

Discussing the “benefits” of spiritual practice is a difficult thing. For one thing, those benefits are often very slow in arising, and usually take a lot of time to stabilize once they have arisen. Backsliding is notoriously easy in esoteric practice just as in changing one’s diet or exercise routine. For another thing, though, we are perhaps too obsessed with benefits in the first place. Everybody comes in the door wanting to know, “Truth sounds nice, and all, but what’s in it for me?”

As Mark Stavish of the Institute for Hermetic Studies recently remarked in an online comment concerning what he tells his students upon entering the classroom, “You have no rights, only obligations. I am here to speak to you about your obligations for this class. If you want to talk about rights, then tell it to the mountain.” The same that Mr. Stavish says of his classroom may be said of life in general, and goes double for the life of the soul. With the popular imagination captured every few years by something like The Secret , the Prosperity Gospel, or whatever the current iteration of New Thought goes by, it is easy for us to forget that no millennia-old tradition of spiritual training out there has ever taught that God is a vending machine into which we can feed the printed paper of “good thoughts” and receive back the many material conditions we believe will make us at last content with our lot. Those who have assiduously applied the practices of magic and genuine prayer know that it is entirely possible to gain materially by the mental progress which comes from spiritual labor, but the sacrifices made to achieve these things rarely permit that they will even-out to as much money and stuff as could be had by just working with intelligence and vigor in a career field. In other words, don’t turn to magic to make you rich, though it certainly may help the well-off to get more or the poor to survive and may help both to feel more stable and confident with whatever their level of income may be.

But, some may ask, doesn’t spirituality bring peace and happiness of its own sort, even apart from stuff and things? Yes, of that there can be no doubt. Remember, though, from my last post that the three great accomplishments—the Mahā-Siddhis, if you will—of peace, freedom, and happiness are like all other “occult powers”: tools. Peace, freedom, and happiness are not themselves liberation, but they are the most powerful tools we humans can apply en route to liberation. Peace and the equanimity which it brings are our armor and shield, freedom the sword we use to cut asunder whatever is useless, distracting, or harmful, and happiness supplies us the verve with which we wade into the battle. We can unpack even further.

Peace is not merely calm. Calm is easy; it happens when one is able to gain a bit of mental distance from a situation, which often happens quite by accident. The brain will even create calm in the face of trauma; we call this “shock”, thus showing that calm alone is not always either good or pleasant. Peace must be deeper than calm. Peace comes not just when the water of the pond is still, but when the garbage has been dredged from the bottom and removed and the pollutants carefully sifted from the water itself. Then, when the water goes still, we have not just calm but peace. The ecosystem restored, everything returned to its nature, there can be genuine equanimity: everything is seen for what it is and may be treated accordingly. Trash is seen as trash and tossed aside, not out of malice but because it simply does not belong. Peace can thus be seen as the faculty of mauna—inner silence, being a mind both clean and still.

Freedom is not the same as license, at least not in the sense of following the whims of hedonistic impulses. It is not, therefore, immorality but a specific sort of amorality. Morality has a role to play: it allows for the survival of social units at every scale and the more or less smooth operation of the individual within those social units (household, family, clan, town, county, region, state, province, nation, etc.). According even to Śrī Dattatreya in the Avadhūta Gīta, the Yogi may follow social and religious convention for the sake of both avoiding unnecessary conflict and encouraging the people in pursuing their own purification through those practices. Rules of morality therefore do have a place in genuine spirituality, and that place needs to be acknowledged and respected—but the Yogi is himself not necessarily obligated to follow those rules beyond a certain point. Freedom therefore implies responsibility, but also the capacity of budhi—a discriminating intellect capable of sifting through the contents of experience and picking out the gems from the grit without the burden of prejudice. Freedom is the ability to strike away what is harmful or useless within one’s own life. It is emphatically not doing whatever one wants without any thought to the consequences to oneself and others, but knowledge of what is good beyond the need for rules based in the organic trans-dualistic (dvaitādvaita) experience of Reality.

Finally, happiness is the dynamo which powers forward progress. It allows us to turn inward without fear of what we may find, as well as to turn outward without fear of being made separate. Happiness arises from the certain knowledge that Reality is one perfect living organism (parapinda, in the twilight language of Yogi-Guru Gorkhnāth) and that no part of that organism is ever separated from It. There is no mortal sin, no damnation, no irreversible error in the spiritual body of God—and there is no conceivable “outside of God” to be banished to for any infraction. Happiness is not yet the perfect realization of Śiva, but the perfume of that flower which arises as we make our approach.

While Grace and Power flows through every channel of the Path of Return, impelling us forward from the depths of each soul, responsibility is still the name of the game. As Śri Dhruvanāth, my own honored teacher now beyond the limits of his body, once told me: “The Śakti will meet you halfway, but the impetus to transform comes from you.” While there is much to be gained on the Path, there is also much work to be done, so I think it more useful to approach from that angle. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, the question is not what my spiritual practice will do for me but what I will do for my spiritual practice. The rewards will rise as surely as the Sun, but running after them apart from the great Journey itself is a fool’s errand down many a mental blind alley and psychic cul-de-sac.

The Heart of Freedom, Part 1: The System

The three evil delusions of mankind; Nationalism, Racism and Religion which separate and divide the human race into conflicting segments. The three jewels of human life; Peace, Freedom and Happiness.

~ Sri Gurudev Mahendranath, The Exegetikos

A very close friend of mine asked me what may be the most pointed questions I’ve ever had directed at me about the purpose, even the usefulness, of spiritual practice. These are not easy questions to answer. I am open to sharing with people who are genuinely and sincerely interested (as I know he is), but I do not wish to come off as some sort of higher authority; I will not pretend that I know more than I do or have experienced more than I have, and I hope that my tone does not make it seem otherwise. But his questions were so direct that I couldn’t help but at least try to give the most thorough answers I could. And, of course, as soon as we had both parted for the night, I thought back on what I had said and how I had said it and started to fill in gaps in my head, clarifying and making more succinct. It seemed a perfect opportunity to do some writing aside from the book I’ve mostly been working on lately and, hopefully, it can be of help to somebody else.

The three questions he asked me, paraphrased, are:

  1. How can we be at all free within a system seemingly devised to keep us subjugated or else divest our humanity to do what it takes the climb the ladder of power?
  2. What have you gained from spiritual practice?
  3. How do you apply these things to the world?

Again, as you can see, these questions are direct and difficult. I will therefore take not less than three article posts here to give my best answers. They may not be to everybody’s liking, and I’m sure that they will be very incomplete, but at least here is what I have learned.


“Freedom isn’t free” was used during the George W. Bush administration here in the USA as a tagline for encouraging military action in the Middle East. Its questionable political motives aside, the phrase is broadly true. Freedom of any sort almost always requires the sacrifice of freedom of another sort; this is true of everybody, because a single lifetime is finite as are available resources.

Mokśa, liberation, is the ultimate freedom. No sacrifice is needed once this stage is reached, but for most of us that will be a long time in coming. Until then, we will have to give much up in the pursuit thereof. That should come as no surprise to anyone. As a magician friend likes to put it, “you wouldn’t expect to master a musical instrument by practicing ten minutes a day,” but that is exactly how many people approach magic, meditation, and other things spiritual expect. Some of them even get some noticeable results doing so because even five minutes of consistent practice a day is better than nothing, but even that is too little for mastery. And if a life of the soul is our actual aim, we can accept no less than a road to mastery.

In practical terms, that all means simplicity. In our society, almost nobody is able to live like a sadhu, nearly naked and wandering with only one or two possessions, because our society will not take care of such a person. In some other parts of the world, such as India, their value as living spiritual centers is recognized, but we cannot change an entire society’s values overnight so other ways must be found. Living inexpensively so that our spiritual lives may take center stage is a good start. Those of us without children may organize our lives so that we don’t need to work full time and may therefore spend more time studying and practicing. We may have to reduce time spent on hobbies. But we may also need to make hard decisions about our social lives. I do not mean to say that friends and family are necessarily obstacles, but often our obligations to social conventions hold us back and time spent in small talk is much as wasteful as time spent in front of a television.

On the level of politics, or of society, this also applies. We cannot help but to participate to some degree in a social and economic system which is to some degree corrupting. I say corrupting rather than corrupt because that is the more important point. The poet Edward Abbey had it that, “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.” This is true above a certain threshold of power, but it is also true below a certain threshold. That is to say, the want of power—of a sort we could call autonomy or self-determination—dehumanizes just as much as too much power, but in a very different way. When we feel weak, when we feel trapped, when we feel oppressed, we tend to revert to animal instincts out of a sense of survival. When we feel powerful, greater than the herd, we likewise revert to such instincts out of a genetic desire to maintain and grow that power. Whether racism, sexism, economic oppression, or—as counter-intuitive as it may seem—power itself, our minds are easily overcome by the portion of the systems we inhabit. This is always either a case of false self-identification or a symptom of it; we say “I am rich” or “I am poor” and we behave accordingly. The “victims” and the “perpetrators” are both enslaved to their own faulty identifications.

Now, it is common enough to see through some of these lies. Unfortunately, for every one we “see through”, we generally find our way to an opposite but equally problematic belief: ex-conservatives become arch-liberals, ex-occultists become “born-again” Christians, disillusioned Christians become militant atheists—we could continue all of this indefinitely. The point is this: it is an ongoing process, and we must not feel pride for any small progress made. For fear of seeming to lecture, I see this all the time. A person realizes that Political Candidate X is full of crap and assumes that Political Candidate Y must therefore hold the answers and then looks down on friends and family who refuse to see the light. Don’t pretend you haven’t done it; I have. But when you notice yourself doing it, realize the error. Never let yourself utter the word “sheeple” about your fellow men and women because we all have blind spots.

Freedom, genuine freedom, comes through effort and sacrifice. Absolutely nothing can be done to circumvent this. But, if you want the real truth, freedom comes from grace alone. Effort and sacrifice prepare us for grace, invite the activity of grace into our bodies, minds, and souls. Neither part of the equation is disposable, for grace is itself the cause of work and not the other way round.

Read Ernst Jünger’s The Forest Passage and look deeply into its message and you will see that freedom in this world is not a state but a process; Sri Gurudev Mahendranath further teaches that peace, freedom, and happiness do not equal liberation but are mutually interlocking techniques for achieving it. The systems of governance and economy which we create as human beings have their place; at their best, they help to stave off certain material problems to create space and supply resources for the subtler pursuits of art, science, and spirituality, but they easily become vectors for oppression no matter how well-intentioned. Even the “small government” so beloved of modern American conservatives is really just code for “government that does what we want and doesn’t do what we don’t want.” In other words: protecting our own interests while repressing those of those who disagree with us. Neither Right nor Left care overmuch for peace, freedom, and happiness because none of those three engines of liberation pays very well.

So the secret to freedom—today as ever—is just ora et labora, not a mere motto but a dictum, an order: Pray and Work! Do both. Make what sacrifices are necessary that both may blossom, releasing the subtle fragrances of peace, freedom, and happiness, because whatever you set aside to tend this garden is merely manure anyway and, in decaying in the absence of attention, will provide ample nutriment for the ultimate bloom of your own soul.

Re-Initiation Into Hermetics — Part 2: Patience, Introspection, & Disease

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but Americans can be extremely, even pathologically, results-oriented. This pragmatism can make us pretty good at a lot of things, but it becomes one of our biggest obstacles in any form of psychological or spiritual practice. Discipline is in many ways the opposite of our anxious pragmatism, because discipline demands that we take things stepwise, focusing only on what needs to be done now rather than on what will rocket us past the goalposts.

Let’s be clear: There is no goal to spiritual practice. That’s not to say there is no purpose, but there is no end, no final tally that lets us say, “Ok, I did it; there’s nothing new to accomplish.” In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to relinquish all notions of “doership” and with it any desire for the fruits of his actions. That is the spirit in which to take things. Not only does it breed detachment, but detachment permits the development of real discernment by which we can discriminate between the Real and the unreal; we can pick apart real from apparent results with dispassion, relinquishing both pride and shame in order to examine what is really happening with as little filtration as possible.

All of this requires that we make haste, slowly. We must give ourselves over to practice as fully as we can, but be patient knowing that the process takes time and that in “giving my all”, “all” will refer to drastically different quantities and qualities of effort at different phases. Franz Bardon tells us to be “pitiless” with ourselves, but he also urges patience. In being pitiless, we don’t let ourselves off the hook when effort is required of us, but by patience we remain flexibly poised during those times when our efforts are exhausted, when we need to be more passive or reflective, or when action simply isn’t prudent.

This emphasis on patience is all in the interest of avoiding disease, or at least treating it properly once it has arisen. Mark Stavish has it that a good 90% of what passes for “spiritual practice” among magicians and other esoteric practitioners is actually a particular sort of psychotherapy—and so completely within the realm of the personal psyche rather than the deep soul or transpersonal spirit. Some might recognize this as “merely” psychological, and many of them will try to skip it in favor of intensive meditation or the fiery practice of mantra and other austerities, but they are woefully mistaken. There is good reason for this “esoteric analysis”.

Our systems come mostly unprepared for the degree of power we will try to make them contain and rechannel. In fact, we are fairly well insulated from many of them by design: most of these forces are not directly related to biological survival and can be quite inimical to our psycho-physiology prior to appropriate preparatory measures. We are each in a sense equipped with a personal lightning rod to avoid a system blowout—if you’ve ever wondered what, exactly, your holy guardian angel is doing before you go looking for him or her, here’s part of the answer.

But, being who we are, we eventually want to push our boundaries to learn, grow, and experience more. To do so in a way which will not cause dangerous power surges, we must make our systems ready. There are many approaches to take in this process, and they are all time-intensive and must be engaged for the rest of our earthly days.

In Yoga—which includes Tantra for our present purposes—this preparatory process begins with character. Patanjali, in his famous Yoga Sutras, gives ten yamas and niyamas: five ethical “don’ts” and five moral “dos”. These are less like commandments and more like general categories by which we may discipline our thoughts, words, and deeds—thus slowly dissolving habits and allowing certain native forces to flow more freely. Not only does this have social consequences, it also clears energy blockages and, as internal forces flow gradually more freely, lets our systems become gently more accustomed to those forces.

Let’s not skirt this question: the forces and powers dealt with, here, are quite real and more ready and capable of doing serious, even permanent, damage than many tend at first to believe. There is especially a modern American tendency to think all such powers to be either metaphors for purely human processes, or else completely benign. Both are mistakes. If we are lucky, such mistakes hold us back from making any progress at all, but if we push too far too fast, these forces can and will break us, mentally and physically. Madness, delusion, monstrosity, illness, injury, and death are all recorded possibilities, and not just in the annals of ancient history; many is the presumptuous would-be magician or mystic who winds up in the hospital, the prison, or the morgue. It is thus that Frithjof Schuon and others have observed that the simple religiously faithful are in many ways enviable.

One of Patanjali’s niyamas is self-study. Franz Bardon takes this as the jumping off point for his own preparatory scheme.

Focusing also on good character, Bardon comes from the other way round: as you develop the capacity for quiet inner observation (introspection, literally “seeing inward”), you may apply this new perspective by analyzing your own patterns of thought and behavior. The “productive” ones become your “white astral mirror”, while the nonproductive or counter-productive habits become your “black astral mirror”. Of course, ultimately all such karmic seeds need to be excised, but it is more im portant at first to cultivate the helpful and minimize the unhelpful.

This exercise alone is quite a boon and can be very time consuming. I was taught that 50 to 100 items per list (trying to keep the two lists approximately the same length) is a good start fro the Step 1 work. But Bardon goes further.

The lists are analyzed again according both to the power or severity of each trait in our lives, and the element to which each corresponds. To some, this seems arbitrary, but when we begin to work directly upon these traits in Step 2, this effort of elemental analysis will provide and excellent snapshot of the relative flows of elemental forces within our subtle bodies. Though not as detailed a map as, say, the meridians of Chinese medicine or the nadis of Ayurveda, the astral mirrors will still show us at a glance what many of our subtle energy knots look like quite well enough to begin untangling them.

Even the Step 1 physical exercises clear the foundations of our energy systems. Not only do these attention exercises make us more aware of our pranic intake through food, water, and air, they also give us the opportunity to set those pranas to work in dissolving internal obstacles to their free flowing. These may be thought of in terms of the transubstantiation of sacraments; though nowhere near as powerful as a proper Mass performed by a person with valid lineage and empowerments, they do work according to a similar principle that to change the meaning of a physical substance is to change the impact of that substance within the organism. This is a very real type of subtle alchemy combining prayer with the facts of biology.

I have told many magicians that the first 5 Steps of Initiation Into Hermetics can efficiently replace most or all of the more cumbersome training of the Western mystery tradition. But Step 1 alone can be the mystical practice of a lifetime, replacing much of the useless nonsense passed off by numerous expensive retreats and the dangerous “break down to build up in our image” self-help seminars which have plagued the sincere seeker in ever-increasing numbers since the days of est.

Once again, I hope that these reflections are helpful. May you be blessed in the work.

References & Other Readings
Problems on the Path of Return: Pathology in Kabbalistic and Alchemical Practices by Mark Stavish

The Path of Alchemy: Energetic Healing and the World of Natural Magic by Mark Stavish (2006, Llewellyn Worldwide)

On Becoming an Alchemist: A Guide for the Modern Magician by Catherine MacCoun (2008, Trumpeter Books)

A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment by Scott Carney (2015, Gotham Books)

Re-Initiation Into Hermetics — Part 1: Concentration & Meditation

For as long as we are incarnate, our minds and bodies are linked together in unfathomable ways, very deeply. We can safely give up any notions of mind-body duality; they are not two. It can help to think of what Bardon calls “body, soul, and spirit” or “physical body, astral body, and mental body” as layers of a single self. As Craig Williams​ often puts it, the body is the revelation of the soul and the soul is the revelation of the body. In terms of Yoga, these constitute the physical, mental, and intellectual sheaths (with the “astral matrix” filling the role of the yogic pranic sheath). This all can be helpful terminology, as long as we don’t forget that we are using what Yoga and Tantra literature sometimes call “twilight language”, or the language of the mystical poet: such terms are useful tools for reflection but can become too-literal blockages, too.

This is all relevant to the Step 1 mental exercises of IIH in that we may gain insight into how our minds work by observing our thoughts from this perspective. First of all, what your body does, your mind does, and vice versa. This is pretty obvious to everyone: mental stress causes muscle tension and impedes organ function, while physical stresses such as illness cause mental stress and fatigue, etc. But it goes down to the details, too. Though Bardon gives short shrift to breathing exercises, he does acknowledge that the breath impacts the mind. Thus, rhythmic breathing from the diaphragm will very quickly relax the mind, and a relaxed mind will cause the body to tend toward this sort of breathing.

You can go into greater detail, if it is helpful. I found through trial and error in my own meditation and magic career, for example, that all physical and mental symptoms of tooth-gritting force of will in concentration and meditation serve only as further obstacles and distractions. The goal with concentration and meditation—as, for example, the Step 1 mental exercises of Initiation Into Hermetics, as well as the later elemental concentration exercises—is for the effort to be a smooth one, for concentration and eventual contemplation to come naturally. Thus, any help to relax the body-mind complex can be good for these early stages.

When I was first going through these Step 1 exercises years ago, I admit that the mental exercises were by far the hardest on me. Though I had been practicing meditation for a while prior, this was the first time anyone had set up clear goal posts for me. Suddenly having those made the work seem more productive, as every advance seemed like an advance TOWARD something rather than just “into the wilderness” (a sort of advance which also has its purpose, but which is really more appropriate for more advanced practice than this Step 1 work). Having these clear goals, however, also made me feel tense because every day I did not see any clear progress, I felt defeated and frustrated. And that, of course, carried over into the exercises themselves.

It’s interesting to look back from where I am now. Though hardly the “enlightened master” I hoped I’d be by this point in my life, I can point to some definite progress, and a big part of that progress is relaxing into any form of concentration. To that end, I’d like to offer some of the little tricks which helped me in this.

  • As weird as it may sound, relax your eyes. When concentrating, you will likely find that the muscles which control your eyes’ movement and which protect your optic nerves will go tense as if you are staring hard at something even with your eyes closed. Just relax them. You can practice by simply looking around the room with your eyes unfocused; everything should look a little bit blurry, but you’ll have a much wider arc of vision than usual. Stretch your arms out to your sides (depending on your peripheral vision, you may have to move your fingertips slightly forward) and try to look straight ahead in such a way that you can see not only what is right in front of you but also your fingertips out at your sides. If what is in front of you fades out, you’re focusing too much on your peripheral vision, and vice versa. Instead, relax your gaze and take it all in passively. When you sit to meditate, do the same with your eyes closed. If you catch yourself during an exercise tensing your eyes up, you now know what it feels like to relax them. This will help, guaranteed.
  • Breath evenly and from your diaphragm. With practice, you can even make this your default way of breathing, and will find yourself much calmer throughout the day for it, as well as better able to keep up during cardio work-outs. For most of us, breathing is itself a stress-inducing action, right from infancy, because our modern medical practices do not give the newborn’s lungs time to acclimate to their new environment before cutting the umbilical cord and setting us on our way, so it can take time to reverse this habit. But it can be done. Start with your concentration and meditation sessions, or any time you need to de-stress a bit during the day. Just push your belly out and let the vacuum of your lungs do the work; don’t worry about pulling air in. To breath out, just relax your belly and gravity will do the work of pushing air out as your diaphragm relaxes.
  • Maybe the least obvious but most important tip: DON’T WORK AT CONCENTRATING! This may sound counter-intuitive, given that the entire goal of a concentration exercise is to force the mind to do something. But the more you try to force your mind into a shape it isn’t accustomed to taking, the more it’ll fight back with all manner of distractions. Instead of conquering it through force, your goal is to “infiltrate” your own thoughts in order to gradually reshape them according to a firm but patient will. The first mental exercise of Step 1 is, in fact, based on this very premise: don’t go right in trying to concentrate, but instead go in to observe. The goal of the first of three Step 1 mental exercises is just to watch your thoughts for a while without getting caught-up by any of them. To do this, you must remain relaxed, because any tension is itself representative of a thought which has carried you away. Even once you have achieved the goal of ten minutes with this exercises and moved on to the next two, I suggest you always begin any session of concentration or meditation of any sort with a solid five to ten minutes of what Bardon calls “thought control”, which is really more like “awareness of thought”, this very relaxed observation of the processes of the mind. Not only does this make concentration itself much easier and more natural, but it also aids in the Step 1 astral exercise of detailed introspection, and many other later efforts besides. Once you get to the concentration exercises themselves, you will find that the same sort of relaxed awareness developed here will be applicable when maintaining awareness of only one object, or of none, and the mind will have been conditions to comply through gentle effort rather than through misguided heroism.

I hope that anyone trying to make real progress in Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics—or in meditation in general—will find this discussion helpful. Blessings in the work!

[All entries in this series may be found indexed in the Introduction.]

Tantra 101: Introduction

My old friend Lupa has an ongoing series at her own blog entitled Totemism 201, in which she seeks to help fellow non-Native “totemists” to move beyond the shallow and selfish model found in most popular New Age and Neo-Pagan sources on the topic. Her format has inspired me to undertake such a series myself on the topic of Tantra and Yoga. It would be far more presumptuous of me to call mine “201”, however, than it is for Lupa to use such a designation, so I’ll start with 101.

It’s actually quite pragmatic to start with 101, anyway, as there seems to me to be far more dangerous misconceptions about Tantra and Yoga than about many—perhaps all—other esoteric topics. While it would be impossible for me to clear all of them up, let alone to re-educate the numerous people who are misinformed or even willfully ignorant, I’d like to at least be able to give the sincerely interested a few good places to start exploring and a source for “unlearning” a lot of the problematic false knowledge.

I should also make clear that there are innumerable forms of Tantra based in Saivism and Saktism (not to mention the Buddhist and Jain varieties). There are points of commonality among them all, so certain general ideas and techniques can be discussed, but it is important for me to say that all of the technical details and modalities which I introduce are from my own background.

No blog post, book, weekend “intensive”, or really anything else, can take the place of a genuine Guru. As such, only those practices which can serve prior to the tutelage of such an initiating Mentor can usefully be included.

With all of that said, I hope that you find this series helpful. As usual with this blog, I will update irregularly, but will try to do so more frequently. You can find each article in order linked in the Table of Contents page.

Jai Siva-Sakti!

Optimism & Hope: A Few Thoughts

My article on the myth of progress in spirituality which ran yesterday on People of Shambhala was, happily, met with mostly positive reception. A friendly acquaintance of mine did take me to task, however, on one point which he sees as a critical oversight: hope.

To summarize, the article itself is intended to briefly debunk the notion of a “new golden age” and its attendant assumptions of a global awakening or collective enlightenment. My friend took this to be a pessimistic position, and asked where hope comes into the picture. I will take my departure here, for this is an important topic.

The Buddha taught that hope is just a pleasant delusion. As with many of the Buddha’s teachings, its simplicity needs to be unpacked. Merriam-Webster defines hope thus: “to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true”. There are two clauses here, if either one of which is reduced we have lost hope. We must not only want a thing to be, we must also believe that it could be. Hope is a marriage of desire and belief. Those of us with much experience in mysticism or magic of any genuine sort must take both elements quite seriously and be on our guard about them.

Desire is powerful. There is nothing inherently wrong with desire, of course. Without it, we would not even have the basic impulse toward life, let alone spiritual life. If we had no desire at all, we could at best be automatons which continue to exist merely as a matter of course. But we live because we desire. We feel impelled to thus and so, whether it be food and drink to keep our bodies in working order, or the deepest states of experiential knowledge, desire is that impulse. Some may prefer to call it “will”, and that word certainly applies, but only once we have achieved a degree of conscious awareness and control over our desires. In whatever form, desire is there.

This very power to press us on toward liberation is what makes desire dangerous. In certain phases of development, often referred to as “involutionary”, our desires are entirely outside of our conscious control. They compel rather than impel. But once we have achieved a degree of self-awareness, which some identify as the point of taking human birth, we are on the upward swing of our parabola which is the “evolutionary” side of life. If we fail, however, to make the transition from involution to evolution, usually by a lack of the self-awareness from which self-control grows, our desires remain sub- or semi-conscious and will subvert our budding will at every turn.

The second variable in our definition of hope is belief. Belief, at base, is thinking and feeling that a thing is so. It is less basic than perception, but more basic than knowledge. Belief, we could say, is the mental lense through which perceptions must pass the reach the conscious mind. Like desire, belief is an essential tool for living life. We cannot go without expectations or presumptions of any sort. The trick is, again, to have the self-awareness to develop more accurate and robust belief systems which permit the freer flow of perceived or experienced data and, so, the more reliable formation of knowledge. (For simplicity, we can define knowledge as “justified belief”, or a belief (a) which one holds, (b) which one is justified by evidence or experience in holding, and (c) which corresponds more or less with reality.) From this brief exploration alone, it is plain to see how belief can be necessary, but also how it can go awry. When you thus put belief and desire together, the combination can be likened to an explosive strapped to one’s chest—and may well result in strapping explosives to one’s chest in a tragically more literal sense.

On a prosaic level, there is nothing at all wrong with hope. I have both the desire for, and belief in the strong possibility of, a visit with my family on Christmas day. My desire may be frustrated if the plan is short-circuited by unavoidable difficulties, or my beliefs may be disappointed if I believe Christmas to be on a Friday rather than a Thursday, but there’s certainly little enough harm in harboring that particular hope. Even if we outsized one or the other of these two elements, the whole structure might remain more or less harmless on its own. Perhaps I believe that extraterrestrials are waiting, cloaked of course, just outside of our atmosphere in order to save us from ourselves once things on Earth become too bad; I’m almost certainly wrong, of course, and not justified in this belief in any case, but it’s really not so big a problem if I am only lukewarm on the prospect (say, because I think we could still well save ourselves, so things may never need to get bad enough for my alien friends to intervene). Or, to reverse the equation, maybe I’m quite passionate about my love for the idea of extraterrestrials, but I’m not at all convinced that they exist or that we would ever come into contact with them if they did. This desire-without-belief could be as simple as Star Trek enthusiasm. Again, relatively harmless.

But if the scale of both the desire and the belief increase significantly, we have another story entirely. The Heaven’s Gate cult, famous for their mass suicide in 1997, is a good example of what might happen with an overabundance of hope in extraterrestrials, where human desire and belief came together with a punishing strength.

This all ties in very directly with notion of a “global consciousness shift”, “mass awakening”, or what have you. A desire that this should occur is fine; it just means that I’ve got human sympathy and would be quite happy to see everything suddenly improve across the globe. A belief that this is impending, however, is not justified. So it is a nice thought, and that is all. If I allow my belief in such a possibility to get beyond its own limitations, the whole structure becomes an obstacle for me. I may begin to focus more upon “the shift” than upon the dirty grind of increasing my self-awareness, improving my self-discipline, and generally using them to become a better, more illuminated individual.

If I feel any firm hope in anything at all, then, it is in the basic capacity of the individual: that one may learn and grow and become better, whether or not the whole mass of other individuals follow suit or not. My belief is justified, as I have experienced it happening in myself and seen it in some of those around me. And my desire is strong, because the whole world needs each one of us to take responsibility for it, for one another, and for ourselves.