The folks at Falcon Books Publishing interviewed me over the weekend concerning my experience with the training system of Franz Bardon. The interview is now live on their blog.
My newest article is up, once again over at Phalanx.
The wonderful guys at Phalanx kindly ran my latest (the first in a series):
Full disclosure: I was given a review copy of this book by Inner Traditions & David Chaim Smith.
I’m not crazy for philosophy for its own sake. Whether the formulations of a Kant or the volcanism of a Nietzsche, for every insight into how to live so as to experience Reality, there are at least ten parts of conceptual ballast seemingly custom-made to keep us in our mental cages. The same can be said to varying degrees of formal theology; everything we try to say about God is a potential pitfall we’ll need to leap to find Him. But when I read from, say, Frithjof Schuon—a metaphysician whose only philosophy and theology is in how the mind must interpret experience of the Subject—I see a bridge built over so many of these bear traps of mere reason. The mind is stilled and the intellect exalted by the scintillation which the writer was able to leave on the page. While there is no chance of leaving the whole experience for the reader to find, even a crust of bread may be enough to awaken hunger in one who has long forgotten their belly’s ache, or sustain one who has walked the path on very little food.
The occult world is nearly as barren as that of philosophy. Very few occultists have even an inkling of the marrow’s presence, let alone the tools necessary to break the bone to get at it. Different personalities require different tool kits; we each have unique gaps in our existing repertoire. Given that so much of Western occultism is built from the bricks of Kabbalah and the mortar of Alchemy, David Chaim Smith uses that language to fill in holes in the lore of occult theory and practice. Where occultism, being somewhere between religion and philosophy, finds itself so often bogged-down in dualism by default, Smith’s writing and art turn the same principles applied in the operations of sorcery to the task of nondual contemplation.
What I have read from Smith in the past has seemed to provide paths and keys to extremely specific gateways within the kabbalistic structure—essentially trails of breadcrumbs and details of an intimidatingly extensive map—while his newest The Awakening Ground: A Guide to Contemplative Mysticism is more a companion who walks just by the side of the aspirant. All of Smith’s writing and art is remarkable for the density of meaning which it contains, so a cursory reading will not be sufficient for most people. His is the twilight language of poetry, though wrapped in the packaging of occult philosophy and the imagery of Kabbalah.
The Awakening Ground is far closer to a “how-to” manual than we have seen before from this author. But, given that his audience are largely occultists and ritual magicians with some prior kabbalistic study under their belts, there is not much here which is friendly to the casual mindfulness junky or the trendy chaos magic crowd. If you are a magician looking for the Key to the Kingdom, tired of treading water with Crowley and his spawn, however, this may be just the thing you’ve been thirsting after; no hand-holding but a remarkably lucid presentation—including symbolic diagrams—of the beating heart of kabbalistic Yoga.
Like any book which plumbs such depths of a tradition’s actual application, The Awakening Ground is not for everyone. If your mental temperament requires a less structured model, Kabbalah in general probably isn’t for you. But for those whose every fiber thrums at sight of the Tree of Life while thirsting for the soma of Gnosis beyond all forms, David Chaim Smith’s The Awakening Ground is a guide you’ll be pulling off the shelf for refreshment for many years. Those same shining sparks one sees in the complex connections of Schuon’s metaphysics are present here in the windswept yet crystalline-clear architecture for the daring occultist truly looking to distill the quintessence from her Art.
As to the artifact itself, don’t expect one of Smith’s usual Fulgur Limited art books. It is a mass-produced hardcover with art book pages, closer to something from Taschen. This isn’t a complaint, though. The text is easy on the eyes and the artwork is crisp and well-shaded; you won’t have any trouble at all either reading it or making out the fine details of the diagrams and meditative pieces. In short, the book is a good quality for a mass market hardcover which befits its more practical contents.
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.
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 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:
- 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?
- What have you gained from spiritual practice?
- 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.