Esoterism contra Exoteric Universalism

Quite often, when an esoteric view is expressed, the listener hears a universalist statement. We must define our terms carefully in order to clarify the point.

Universalism is the view that all religious and spiritual modalities wind up at the same salvation in the end, regardless of differences and distinctions in character or application. This is popularly expressed as “all religions are basically the same” or, with somewhat more sophistication, “all paths lead to the same goal.”

Esoterism is a focus on the way in which any given religion or spiritual modality may be turned inward upon itself so that the individual practitioner may also turn inward upon himself. Esoterism is the sum of mysticism, gnosis, and magic—what the author of Meditations on the Tarot refers to as Hermetic philosophy or what Schuon calls Perennial Philosophy or Traditional Metaphysics.

Esoterism states that the possibility of inwardness exists in principle in any authentic religious or spiritual tradition while acknowledging that it is more difficult to access in some than in others, sometimes considerably so to the point of practical impossibility. A religion may be called spiritually alive insofar as this possibility is actualized in the persons of living representatives of that tradition.

An esoterist will certainly focus on the practice of a particular tradition but, unlike the purely exoteric (outward) religionist, will not be uncomfortable with taking lessons from or even engaging in the practices of a genuinely living religion or spiritual tradition. What works, works. To put it more concretely: A Yogi who has, even for the briefest moment, touched the feet of God will feel no discomfort in the magical application of the Psalms. Game recognize game.

Book Review: Diaphany, vol. 1

Diaphany: A Journal & Nocturne, Volume One
Aaron Cheak, PhD; Sabrina Dalla Valle, MFA; Jennifer Zahrt, PhD (eds)
Rubedo Press

Aaron Cheak of Rubedo Press kindly sent me a PDF of Diaphany for the purpose of a review and after only the first few pages I knew that I would be ordering a hard copy at some point soon. Peer-reviewed philosophy journals tend, in my experience, to be two things first and foremost: somehow both dry and masturbatory at once. Diaphany is neither of these.

How did Rubedo Press and their body of academic contributors manage this? Why, they navigated through to the other side of that cramped but complex city in which many an intellectual finds himself lost years or decades after entering. No, not Pittsburgh, but good guess; I mean abstraction. Abstraction is a useful tool when trying to examine general principles, but it is altogether too easy to wander around in abstraction in search of some ever-evasive reductive truth. But the men and women who edited and contributed to Diaphany drew from that one thing which absolutely forbids abstraction: reality. I’ll let the website blurb briefly do the talking for me:

While strictly peer-reviewed, and while upholding the highest standards of academic research—including an unwavering fidelity to source materials—Diaphany is not a conventional academic journal. That is, Diaphany is not interested in so-called ‘objective’, ‘dispassionate’, or ‘impersonal’ inquiry for its own sake. Rather, Diaphany seeks philosophers tempered in the fires of genuine wisdom rather than mere information; scientists whose work emerges as much from a fervent, personal quest as it does from the perception of inexorable, impersonal realities; and artists of poēsis and presence who make the invisible visible and the eternal tangible according to a Kandinskian ‘inner necessity’ (innere Notwendigkeit).

The articles contained herein stand apart from one another in showcasing the unique experiences and thought processes of their respective authors (as well as any traditions from which those authors draw), never flattening them out into mere principles. The eminently Gebserian contribution by Aaron Cheak, “Rendering Darkness and Light Present” cannot be adequately compared to the Zen-inspired “Never Paint what Cannot be Painted” by Jason M Wirth, even less to “Exploring the Fractal Nature of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Cosmology” by Moselle N Singh—except to say that their central message is ever and always about what Craig Williams (author of Cave of the Numinous, which I previously reviewed here) calls “sacramental vision”, the increasingly direct perception of what is embodied and revealed within phenomena. Here is no Procrustean bed of esoteric religious traditions but an exploration of some of the ways in which experience of one way can deepen the experience of other ways. The diaphany of which the title speaks is therefore not an opaque vale which one must pull from the face of Isis, but a vale of gossamer which, if one looks upon it with intellectual intent and an open heart, is here opaque, there translucent, and there again entirely invisible, as the subtle currents of the atmosphere cause it to sway about in the light of the Moon. Each and ever written piece which makes up this volume shows off not the theoretical or merely metaphorical knowledge of this vale, but the loving approach to whatever of the face of Isis the Goddess Herself chooses to reveal. While the writing is therefore the thing, the supplementary or, perhaps, exemplary artwork included enhances rather than distracts from the overall impact of each article. In the piece aforementioned “Never Paint what Cannot be Painted”, for instance, the reader is treated to examples of precisely what can be painted and, blessedly, not a stroke more.

If modern philosophy is that guy at the dinner party who is somehow both boring to an almost catatonic degree and yet somehow so obnoxious as to be unavoidable, Aaron Cheak is the guy who gently directs you to the door and says, “C’mon, I know of a really laid-back after-hours place with good beer on tap and comfortable couches.” In volume one of Diaphany, he and his fellow editors and contributors kindly take us in their midst, pour us a relaxing cold one, and gather around with unforced smiles, and talk of what must be known if the world is to mean a damn.

Tantra 101 — Part 1: Embodiment

The body is the first temple of worship. Even when we carry the body to a temple, we must engage with that temple through the body. Even the sacred groves and balefires of those who worship out of doors must be seen and felt in order to have meaning for the supplicants. Practices like meditation, astral projection, and so on, may help to prepare for the process of death and the after-death state, but they are still centered in the body described by biology and are instantiated by neural correlates. There is no escaping this fact for as long as we fit the biological description of “life”.

Many spiritual seekers see the body as a flaw. It is certainly a limitation. In Tantra, however, the body is the alchemical vessel in which the materia is transmuted. (The materia is the subtle body of the soul, what occultists call the “astral body” or the “astra-mental body”, but further discussion of this topic must remain for later.) To be “limited” to acting primarily in and upon the gross material world is a limitation in the same way that plumbing limits the flow of water through capillary action in order not only to direct the water’s flow but also to increase its pressure. The cataract which must be surgically removed is only the self-identification with bodily limitation, not the body itself (which will remove itself in due time anyway). The pressure built up by this limitation, however, allows the soul to discover itself, gradually awakening to its own capacities by way of their lesser physical and mental correlates.

Perfect physical health is unattainable. Even if a supposed “perfect equilibrium” were possible, it could only last a brief moment before the very next bodily activity overbalanced one element or another. It is therefore not worth striving after physical perfection. But health, as an ongoing process, is within the reach of most of us and is one of the greatest aids to the spiritual life. Asanas (the familiar physical postures of Yoga), pranayama (restraining the breath in specific ways), the dietary insights and alchemical preparations of Ayurveda, as well as internal martial arts, are all traditionally useful modes of preparing the body to accept the biological correlates of deep magical and alchemical practices such as mantra and meditation.

It is also for the above reasons that many traditional meditation practices begin with some sort of bodily awareness. Consider Zen, whose emphasis is on breath awareness while sitting and full-body awareness during walking meditation; deeper concerns, such as watching the actions of the mind, come later or arise naturally from body awareness and, in any case, are based on the restful concentration developed through such practices. Any time I have taught others my own mode of meditation, I have started them out with bodily awareness. A practice with which anyone can engage is to simply feel the weight and warmth of your own body. Spend as long as you can doing this alone, allowing any and all sensations to simply pass through your awareness without direct concern. There is more depth to this deceptively simple exercise than at first appears, and it is just the first step toward awakening deeper faculties of concentration and perception.

References & Further Reading
Cave of the Numinous: Tantric Physics vol. 1 by Craig Williams (2014, Theion Publishing)

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (2011, Shambhala)

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.