The Road to Hell

The Road to Hell

I was recently given a rather pointed reminder of the bitter fact that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This proverb has become such a cliche that we don’t often think about what it means; it gets thrown out to try and shut up those with whom we disagree in social, political, economic, or religious matters and as quickly dismissed by our interlocutors for the silly gambit it was, but it is never used as intended: introspection. Turn the phrase on yourself and see where it leads you. Sincerely ask yourself—and, by God, don’t answer immediately!—”What motivates me here?” Often, we quietly, so quietly we do not hear it ourselves, bury our ignorance, egotism, attachment, repulsion, and fear under a pile of philanthropic projects, community outreach programs, educational pursuits, or simple free-floating sentiments of humanitarianism and good-will.

For a time, there, I was multiplying my public obligations: working on writing some books, advertising my work as an astrologer and Tarot reader, teaching a meditation class, giving “talks” on various topics, and so forth. But this is precisely why we have need of the Guru. My preceptor, in a gentle but clear way, brought my attention sharply around to what I was doing. So now, I’m pulling back.

This doesn’t mean that I’m cutting all of my public involvements, nor would I presume to tell anyone else to do so. Rather, I was given the opportunity to look my own motives and needs in the face and that’s my only recommendation. Do not “vote in haste and repent at leisure” but consider why it is you want to do something, support something, say something.

This is not a repudiation of compassion. I’m sure that some will want to take it that way, but that, too, is a defense mechanism for the ego: “If you aren’t coming out in vocal support of my priorities, it’s because you must be The Enemy.” Remember, whether you are tempted to say this to someone else, or someone says it to you, it is close enough to 100% that it’s just an ego trying to protect its own borders. Real compassion doesn’t often look like either an Internet meme or a Facebook rant. It’s often much more like the Karma Yogi’s quiet willingness to do what he knows he ought, apart from any expectation of enjoying the fruits thereof. To put it sharply, “Compassion sometimes looks like indifference,” if only because the observer’s field of view is limited.

Neither is this a repudiation of taking care of one’s self. To the contrary: the understanding of one’s own motives is an irreducible necessity for real peace, freedom, and happiness. When we know why we want something (or want to avoid something) we can make more intelligent decisions as to whether or not it is worth our while. Does this actually help anyone’s attainment of peace, freedom, or happiness, or is it just another entanglement?

This is all something we have to gradually awaken to. It is the Yogic capacity for discernment—Insight, buddhipratibhā—so it does not serve us to too harshly flagellate ourselves when we fail to exercise it. It does, however, serve us to take notice when we’ve dropped the ball. For this, a spiritual friend who has walked before us along the way is invaluable. But even if you do not yet have such a person, you can always try to remind yourself: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

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.

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.

On Idolatry

As my friendships fan-out into more and varied religious and spiritual communities, I find myself running up against attitudes and beliefs which I had previously only known in the theory. In a conversation between two Jewish friends, I heard the most overt criticism of idolatry which I’ve ever encountered in person. In a later talk with one of them, I had described to me the experience of feeling “chilled” at seeing Buddhists bowing to statues of the Buddha. By the standards of my Jewish friends, then, I am an idolater.

Idolatry is of course condemned implicitly and explicitly throughout the rest of the Bible (Jewish and Christian inclusive), not to mention the Quran. I can even see where such a prohibition might come from: There is no doubt a great danger in reifying human ideas and ideals into absolutes to be worshiped apart from divine revelation. We bear witness today to the results of doing so in the most circular fashion: deifying human reason. But are all venerated images “idols” in this sense?

Assuming that the biblical law in question was genuinely revealed through prophecy, I think it vitally important to remember to whom a revelation is directed. In short, God knows His audience. If we look to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world of the day these laws were handed down, the situation was one of rampant idolatry not merely in the sense of using statues in religious worship, but one of deep ambiguity concerning humanity’s obligations to both man and divinity, the overvaluing of institutions, and the undervaluing of human life. It makes sense, under these conditions, to cut out as much gray area as possible. But this is bordering on attributing human motives to the Divinity, so I won’t travel any further in this direction.

But what of the more literal idolatry of religious images and statues? I find the accusation of idolatry to be contextual, and usually arbitrary. A Christian does not think that the sign of the cross hanging over the altar is an idol, nor will Catholic and Orthodox practitioners admit of the images of saints being called “idols”, when “icon” sounds so much nicer.

We can take this further. Is the Ka’ba an idol to which Muslims prostrate? It strikes me that a lump of meteoric rock inside a small cubic building is no less an idol than a Śivalingam in a cave, and may well be more so because its “idolatrous” nature goes ignored, unacknowledged, or denied, even by non-Muslims. The Ark of the Covenant is certainly an idol, for it was reverenced as having been inhered by the very Presence of Hashem.

I can predict the Abrahamic objection that the Ark cannot be an idol because, though built by human hands, it was built according to specifications revealed by God, so has divine imprimatur. But the images of Śiva, Ganeśa, and Vishnu — let alone Thoth, Hermes, Zeus, Odin, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Isis, and any number of other deities — are also revealed by those deities for the purpose of granting their worshipers some insight into their natures and how best to draw close to them. To claim that only my god’s revealed image, word, and aesthetic preference are valid religious expressions is merely to beg the questionn.

The monotheisms who condemn idolatry — while, as observed, practicing it themselves — usually claim the distinction of worshiping God directly, while idolaters worship the images. This is either ignorance, or deliberate obscurantism, depending upon the representative in the discussion. The uneducated individual has the defense of having read or heard the reality: that no worshiper of Vishnu, say, thinks himself to worship a mere image, but the Person who reveals himself through the image. Both the ignorant and the obscurantist may rejoin that the real difference, then, is the reality or supremacy of the god in question. But this is rhetoric, nothing more. Again, it begs the question it proposes to settle.

It is a truth unsettling to monotheists that monotheism is, strictly, not represented in the Abrahamic traditions as generally understood. All kinds of circumlocutions are invented to deal with the awkward facts of the angels, demons, hypostases, and mentions of other gods in their scriptures. These attempts not only tend to contradict the witness of the selfsame scriptures, they also unreasonably dismiss the experiences of worshipers in every other religious tradition in the world. I say “unreasonably” because the best they can ever do by way of justification is to cite their own claims in circular fashion; this is hardly satisfactory.

A separate but related truth is that religion can not exist without some form of idolatry — assuming, as we have this whole discussion through, that the biblical notion of idolatry can even be meaningfully applied. Moving forward, I propose some alternatives.

The word “monolatry” is already current; from here on, we may prefer it to “monotheism”, even if monolaters object. More, many of the religions condemned or dismissed as “idolatrous” do not actually worship idols. We might consider co-opting Christianity’s sanitized term “icon”, though we still don’t worship icons. Provisionally, I suggest “mesoeikonism” from the Greek words for “through” and “image”.

If the non-Abrahamic traditions, from Buddhism and Hinduism to Pagan revivals and First Nations/aboriginal traditions, are to be included in the global dialog, we must establish philosophical categories for the Abrahamic faiths just as their theologians (and the atheist philosophers who use their categories to this day) which adequately refocus the discussion, rather than confining ourselves to the categories handed to us by those who have spent centuries claiming a monopoly on philosophical adequacy. The beginning of this process has to be an aggressive correction of accidental misapprehensions and intentional misrepresentations.

Non-Dual Trinitarian: The Nature of Unity in Saivism

In Saiva Siddhanta, we speak of the three fundamental “substances”: God, Nature, and souls (the collective of all individuals). In this way, both dvaitins (dualists) and advaitins (non-dualists) see Siddhanta as false.  Samkhya sees at the base of all things the two: Nature and souls. Advaita Vedanta bristles at this dualism, and finds its resolution in the dependent natures of both, thus declaring them to be “illusory” — because not self-sufficient — and asserting that God is the only real entity.

But Siddhantins recognize the metaphysical problems with these two alternatives. Samkhya’s aim is not to explain or resolve, but to observe, and the mere observation of multiplicity and duality undermine any conception of undifferentiated unity. Advaita tries to resolve these observations by the brutal act of denying them. In the first instance, dualism points to an unresolved conflict, which everyone from Zoroastrians to Manicheanas to Cathars to Protestants eventually insisted on moralizing, with “spirit” standing in for good, and “matter” for evil (with modern satanism merely reversing the polarity). In the second case, the conflict is not resolved but merely ignored, returning to a static, womb-like unity wherein All-Possibility is denied in favor of Being. The Siddhantin sees God not only in still mountaintop meditation; God is also the Lord of Dancers, master of both movement and rest.

One of the greatest metaphysical difficulties for the advaitin is the simple question: Why did God create anything at all? In more philosophical terms, if the One is self-sufficient, what was the point of any sort of duality or pluralism?

The Christian and the Hermetist can well anticipate the solution. If one is static, and two is strife, three is the end of division and the establishment of a dynamic unity. A modern Hermetic illustration of this idea is that of the pendulum. True, the bob swings back and forth between two extremes, but it is anchored to a fixed point; by gradually tracing attention up the string, our eyes travel shorter and shorter intervals as we watch the swing, until fully coming to rest at the anchor point.

The non-dualist will see this as pluralism, and so reject it. But the esoteric eye sees that unity was never disrupted, and could not be in any case. The three — God, Nature, and souls — represent the three ontological hypostases of the Absolute. God alone is ontologically necessary, though we refer to the other two as fundamental substances and co-eternals insofar as everything persists in seed within its substrate between manifestations. The fact that Nature and souls must eventually go to seed does not make them illusory. As we are discussing a realm beyond time and temporal causation, we may thus say that God is ontologically prior to Nature and souls, but not chronologically prior, because chronological priority is meaningless at this level.

God’s Sakti — His Grace — acts upon Nature according to another threefold division, less fundamental but which corresponds to the three entities under discussion. The creative act corresponds to the souls, whose nature it is to imagine and to will; the preservative or upholding act corresponds to Nature, because of her characteristic persistence through constant change; the act of destruction is God’s alone, as He is the ground to which both souls and Nature go to seed. All these three graces — creation, preservation, and destruction — encompass divine activity in and through Nature herself.

There are, however, two remaining graces left entirely for God to act upon souls alone. The three dynamic graces are used upon Nature in service to these two intellectual graces: concealment and revelation. The duality of these graces is the metaphysical cause of humanity’s tendency to get bogged-down in binary thinking, but its also the cause of our occasional intuitive leaps of brilliance. As the souls stand metaphysically between God and Nature, it makes sense that we should be the way by which “two” makes itself known. God is One Consciousness; we are the division of consciousness into awareness of “self” and “not self”; Nature is the field of dynamic activity: 1 – 2 – 3.

123 pyramid

In Pythagorean fashion, if we add up the resulting pyramid, we get 1 + 2 + 3 = 6, which alchemists know as the hexagram representing God as found in the Height and the Depth. Add the graces, and we get 2 + 3 = 5, the pentagram of humanity’s capacity to master Nature through self-knowledge. Of course, the points of the pentagram each refer to one of the elements, and we may see in each grace the metaphysical root of an element, though I will not say more on that here, as it makes a very valuable meditation.

The purpose of this rudimentary numerology is not the common naive attempt at a “proof”. In the Inner sciences, no such thing could be provided, nor would it be desirable to do so. All models are tools, not the goal itself. And that’s just how Saivas view both Advaita and Samkhya: the non-dual realization is a goal for which we cannot skip over the intervening territory, while Samkhya gives us much of the map of that territory. Siddhanta is the Yoga of these facets as a single gem. There is herein no denial either of the fundamental unity of all things, nor of the variety of manifestation. Drawing all things to One (to paraphrase from The Imitation of Christ) is not a denial of “all things” any more than the fact of “things” is a denial of One.