A Bardon Community — Reflections on a Trend

Many years ago, when I was just beginning to read and practice Franz Bardon’s Initiations Into Hermetics (“IIH” for short), the Czech magician’s system of training was fairly obscure outside of some fairly serious students of occultism. Today, the situation has changed considerably, with Bardon’s writings being pretty well known to nearly every occultist, magician, or Neopagan out there. And that’s great. I’m very happy that Bardon, especially IIH, is getting more attention and is finding his way into more and more occult training routines. There’s even a growing community of Bardon practitioners out there who are doing their part to spread what, to my eyes, is the single best system of mystical and magical training native to the Western world available in any European language. This community’s growing pains, however, are all rife with their own lessons.

I’ve only recently come into contact with what I’m broadly referring to as “the Bardon community”. I’m not antisocial, but I am pretty good at keeping to myself, and I take the old injunction “To Keep Silent” pretty seriously — and apparently far more at face value than most — so I don’t tend to seek people out with whom to discuss these things. But this blog, Facebook, and other venues are obvious breaches in my fortress whereby people can find me and have conversations. So, by way of just having this blog, I found myself in discussions with a variety of people and am learning of this community that I never really knew existed as such. Much of what I’m learning is very encouraging, while some of it is quite troubling indeed. I’d like to address some of those challenges in this post, not to shame or blame anyone but to give what I think is useful food for thought that this burgeoning Bardonism might develop a healthy trunk from the strong roots Bardon himself laid down.

The first thing to strike me about the loose association of Bardon practitioners is the abundance of schools, not just in the sense of institutions intent on giving guidance to other practitioners but in the sense of competing camps of interpretation and application. In both of these senses, the various “schools of Bardonism” are prone to mislead. I do not mean that there is anything inherently wrong with a more experienced practitioner making themselves available as a resource to those coming after, and I also do not have anything necessarily against them making some money from it. After all, the time, energy, and expertise which goes into this process can be great and is deserving of tribute or acknowledgment on the part of the fortunate student. But Bardon’s works are very intentionally structured as yogic self-study. If pursued with diligence and patience, most questions will answer themselves. Any further filling-in of the outline of IIH is actually quite counterproductive, as a large portion of the educational value of IIH is exercising not only the discipline but also the creativity and even playfulness which make the exercises practical and which integrate them into our daily lives and deeper psychology.

The structure of IIH was left sparse very deliberately. Bardon did not see himself as a taskmaster nor as the dean of a school giving a precise curriculum. Though he intended that the outline be followed as written — and I strongly suggest that any students reading this take that point extremely seriously — he left all of the details out because those must be deeply personal, organically adapted to the particular needs of the individual mind and body. Just as importantly, it is the individual practitioner who must come up with this themselves! Having someone else do all of the tailoring for you is merely robbing yourself of the opportunity for self-knowledge. A Bardonic teacher, then, would ideally act like a preceptor in the Nath tradition: they are available to answer questions but mostly make it their job to turn the student back in upon themselves, saying only enough to give the student the confidence to explore more deeply and to try again with renewed vigor. To be quite terse, if you aren’t willing to fill in a lot of these apparent gaps for yourself, Bardon’s methods probably aren’t for you, at least not just yet.

This last point opens up another topic I see among some Bardonian teachers out there: the claim that Initiation Into Hermetics is somehow inaccessible to all but a minority or, put differently, that “normal people” aren’t capable of practicing it. To this I respond: No more than any other system of inner training. There is no call either to feel superior for engaging with IIH nor to put others off of it because of its difficulty. It is one thing to give someone an earnest heads-up that what they’re about to embark upon is not for the dilettante, but it is not our job to tell anyone else that they just can’t do it. As my Nath preceptor put it in regard to that tradition, if the karmas are there, you’ll find your way to it and, to large extent, that’s that. It doesn’t make anyone innately special, nor “higher” or “lower” than someone engaged in something else.

While Bardon did not consider his books to be any sort of doctrinal canon (on which more later), nevertheless it seems odd to me how many Bardonian teachers take it upon themselves to criticize the basic structure. I have heard from a few commentators, for example, that Bardon’s system is too “fiery” and not enough “watery”. I daresay such a critique actually misunderstands the Hermetic elements and how they fit together. I have yet to see from the West so balanced an approach to the elemental forces as Bardon’s; many other systems would do well to take clues from the structure of IIH (and, depending on how they do things, The Practice of Magical Evocation [PME] and Key to the True Quabbalah [KTQ] as well) to avoid the pitfalls of certain other famous modern Western occult training methods. I will leave it mostly up to the student to figure out what I mean about the nature of the elements and how they balance dynamically in IIH. It may serve for now, though, to point out that water, in the human economy, is primarily the function of the reflective mind. This includes, but is not limited to, sensation (physical and emotional), self-observation, collation of data (sensory or rational), and the capacity for devotion. The student will find all of the above quite amply represented in the work of Initiation Into Hermetics.

Finally — and I have seen others comment on this point as well — there is an abundance of, and seeming focus on, commentaries. This goes back a lot to what I said previously about the various schools and teachers in evidence in every direction within the Bardon community. Everyone also seems to have their own commentary, especially on IIH. As I observed in the last paragraph, Bardon would not have described his works as any sort of sacred canon, therefore neither should we consider anyone else’s work on the topic to be canonical. If any of these commentaries provides some helpful guidance or clarity, that’s wonderful, but we should not become obsessed by any given reading. IIH is not the Vijñāna Bhairava or the Yoga Sutras; it is not intended to be a set of mnemonic aphorisms needing to be unpacked by a Guru. For fear of repeating myself too much, yet reinforcing a very necessary point, IIH is in outline for a number of important reasons and it is up to the individual practitioner to creatively and experimentally fill in many of the gaps on their own. A commentary can, at the absolute best, only show an example of how one person filled them in. If we fall into the trap of treating someone else’s example as the sine qua non of the practice, we dead-end ourselves far more than we might believe. Worse, we may create for ourselves the illusion of progress which can be very difficult to see through as we have convinced ourselves that someone else’s experience with mastery of a given exercise is the only way to move ahead. It was precisely to avoid the pitfalls of more baroque systems common in his own day that Bardon preferred an experimental, infinitely personalized, and relatively simple approach which could be elaborated upon as much as the individual needed. In point of fact, both PME and KTQ are nonessential examples of such elaboration — which some will find to be helpful or even necessary for higher progress, and others will not need or may even experience as extravagant obstacles. This, too, parallels the way things are done in the Nath sampradāya, and this parallel is illustrative: a Guru will guide some chelas to the study of astrology, others to complex ritual magic, yet others to physical yogas, and on and on. Such guidance for one person does not mean that the same practices will be equally useful, or even useful at all, for everyone else, and the same Guru may even guide most or all students away from a practice given as necessary to another. A one-size-fits-all approach to spiritual development is as unwise as one-size-fits-all healthcare and it is for this reason that lodge, school, and church structures are incapable of granting access to the depths of esotericism.

I hope that all of the above points will be taken in the spirit in which they are intended. I really do think that Franz Bardon has left us with one of the handful of most remarkable, balanced, and flexible modes of inner training available without a qualified Guru. I think it’s a great thing that there is a growing community of practitioners who wish to share enthusiasm and encouragement in the Work, and that there are people who have been there before willing to connect with those coming up after them. But as such affiliations grow, it is important to be aware of shortcomings and stumbling blocks as they arise and before they can become deep-set diseases. Each individual must ultimately think for themselves in order to know, become independent in service to will, boldly experiment to dare, and to keep silent in order to build the inner pressure required to push ever deeper inward.

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.]

Re-Initiation Into Hermetics — Introduction

Years and years ago, I undertook the practice of Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics (IIH for short). For those not familiar, you may find my introduction to that book here: Franz Bardon’s Hermetic Yoga — Part 1: Initiation Into Hermetics. That practice changed me in uncountable ways and certainly brought me to where I am today. I cannot thank the Magus Franz Bardon enough for all of his help along the way.

I probably get more questions about Bardon and his books than about anything else I write about on this blog. (I’m sorry that I’m so bad at maintaining correspondence, by the way.) As such, alongside my Tantra practice, I have decided to revisit the exercises of IIH from the very beginning as a sort of refresher course, but also to get greater perspective of the progress I have made and exactly how magical and spiritual practice has changed me. I thought that it may be fun, also, to write some pieces along the way containing some of the insights I gain as I go, especially where they could be helpful for someone else.

So here it is, a second series which will hopefully run right alongside my Tantra 101 series (which I am still working on, don’t worry). Those of you who are practicing the Bardon system and would like for me to address specific issues or questions, feel free to leave comments. I will do my best to work them all in. Thanks everybody for reading, and blessings in the work!

Index of Series Posts

Part 1: Concentration & Meditation

Part 2: Patience, Introspection, & Disease