Living in Kali Yuga — Part 1: World of Darkness

Growing up, my friends and I were pretty big into role playing games. As with most people who play these games, we mostly stuck to the fantasy and sword & sorcery genres. When we wanted to branch out, though, we mostly went to modern horror. Modern horror as a genre, whether of literature, film, or games, has a very different mood from fantasy, but the core conceits are pretty similar: what if the monsters and magic of folklore and myth were real? The difference is that in fantasy the main characters exist in a world in which these things are assumed to be real, so even while perhaps finding them frightening and daunting, they are not terrifying because they do not defy common expectations of how reality works; horror, on the other hand, has the protagonists and anti-heroes running into these same things, albeit in a context which cracks or even shatters their formal learning and ingrained beliefs about the world around them.

And among our favorite games that did this were Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension. These games, though they take very different approaches to interacting with it, share a fictional setting: the modern world (as of their original writing, the mid- to late 1990s) in which the gothic horrors of vampires, werewolves, tortured ghosts, eldritch sorcerers, and fairy changelings existed as commonplaces yet just out of sight for the vast majority of humanity. It was a dark approach to wainscot fantasy which turned it into a neon-lit, rain-slick, smog-obscured deathrock scene. This setting was officially entitled the World of Darkness.

Back then, a lot of kids read those books and played those games and hoped or believed themselves to be among these creatures. Most weren’t really delusional, but they felt that these identities filled in some deep crevice or bridged a wide cavern in their inner lives. Arguably, the subculture which developed around these RPGs gave rise to modern “otherkin” identities as fans of World of Darkness games wove their way through tabletop and video gaming, fantasy, horror, science fiction, goth rock, extreme metal, occult, and Internet sub- and counterculture groups. These group identities were all quite small at the time, as the information and telecommunications technologies had not reached the accessibility, ubiquity, and socio-economic dominance which they now have, so people very often held strongly to them once found and would patch them together into semi-coherent manifestos of self-empowerment and self-expression. If you lived through it, you know exactly what I mean, and if you weren’t there it would take at least a book to get across anything of what that world was like.

One part of it which has always existed, however, and which persists in human nature to this day, is the singular experience of “otherness”. While certain social, sexual, ethnic, and religious minorities experience it more accutely than others because of the social, economic, and political currents against which they must swim, a feeling of alienation is such a common human experience that one can find fiction, poetry, and mythology centered on it in every canon of literature across the globe. Oral, performance, and written traditions alike not only carry its imprint but, more often than not, arise from it as their seed planted in the more or less fertile soil of whichever prevailing society.

This very feeling of otherness, whatever its material or efficient causes, is what drives us, throughout history, into mysticism, the occult, poetry, eremitical monasticism, depth psychology, philosophy.

Throughout history, too, many societies have attempted to explain this sense of alienation through some version of a Fall. Sometimes this descent comes from human disobedience (Adam and Eve) or the error of a celestial being (Sophia, Yaldabaoth). Sometimes it is just the natural course of the cosmos (Bhagavatam Mahapurana, various Buddhist texts, I Ching). The Hindu cosmological and astrological concept of the yugas is paradigmatic of this latter approach to understanding, and has become the template for much modern Western esoteric speculation as well. Occultists of today often draw from any and all of these previous sources and use the Hindu framework as a means of tying them together. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but when you start to syncretize observations from very different cultural contexts it can be easy to unselfconsciously allow assumptions from one culture to bleed into the ideas and practices of another. When carried out over generations, this process can give us cultural and spiritual treasures such as the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, the Corpus Hermeticum, the myriad Hindu Puranas, and hoodoo; when feverishly rushed through to fit a purely personal or timely ideology, however, we get the septic backwash of Julius Evola, eye-rolling machismo of occult fight clubs, “volkish” reconstructionism, Blavatsky’s unintentionally racist Theosophy, or overtly white nationalist neo-Vedanta and neo-Tantra.

The yugas, four in number, are similar to the three ages of classical Greek cosmology: they are a series of descending world-eras in which human civilization goes from relative perfection in its participation in the divine order to, frankly, what we’ve had for all of recorded history: dissipation, fragmentation, fear, anxiety, and conflict. This is one of those things which can’t be proven, even through the direct experience of Yoga or ritual magic; it is either taken on faith or it is not. Some astrologers have been able to point to evidence of it in the procession of equinoxes and the like, and there is a degree to which these are convincing given descriptions of the vault of the heavens found in Rg Veda and other very early oral and written spiritual traditions. Even so, the full implications of the doctrine of the yugas cannot at this time be substantiated; it will either prove true as we move undeniably into the next yuga, or, more likely, it will remain unfalsifiable — either because transitions between yugas are long and subtle, or else because there’s no such thing and you can’t prove a negative.

I have personally wrestled with the idea of yugas for just over a decade and feel no closer to a conclusion. I have therefore put the literal truth of the hypothesis to one side and focus instead on its value as an idea.

Vine Deloria Jr., famous for his role in the American Indian uprising of the 1960s and revitalization of public American Indian scholarship and intellectual life, spent a lot of his writing career exploring the so-called “progress” of civilization. He used his platform to conduct a sort of turning the gaze of Eurocentric anthropology, ethics, history, metaphysics, and theology back upon itself — making these disciplines study “white society” as if American Indians had found Europe before Europe had found the Americas. Not only does this hang a lampshade on the biases inherent to these fields of study, it also reveals valuable pieces of data hitherto ignored because of those biases. In his The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, for example, Deloria suggests that the disenchantment and alienation of modern life is nothing new, that it extends back to the very first time a sense of unity arose in human society:

The dehumanizing aspect of larger organization may be sufficient to stifle individual expression and may serve to create disruptive tendencies that prove more attractive to individuals. It would almost seem that achieving relative homogeneity is a signal for differentiation to start. The phenomenon is not restricted to primitive societies or to societies in the process of adopting new technologies. Whenever human societies discover away to create a unity, the elements creating that unity seem to emerge as centers for additional growth and unification under a new focus.

Vine Deloria Jr., The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, Fulcrum Publishing, 2012, pg 153

Of course, Deloria goes on, the modern age is “a case in point”:

The electric media […] have accelerated time and imploded space to present us with a global village homogenized by communications and bound together by an increasingly more efficient transportation system. […] The integration of the whole, in our modern world, is the coming planetary transformation of which Revel speaks, and the search for a unified understanding of human social existence, unless it takes into account the process of differentiation, will be transitory at best. Revel’s initial fascination with American social change, in which he sees the creation of alternative lifestyles as indicative of potential for growth and leadership, indicates a recognition of these growth and differentiation factors.

ibid

Referencing the the conservative Catholic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Deloria does agree with Traditionalists on one worthy point:

Not all social groups are participating in the present transformation in the same way that Western societies are. Marshall McLuhan comments that “backward countries that have experienced little permeation with our mechanical and specialist culture are much better able to confront and to understand electric technology. Not only have backward and nonindustrial cultures no specialist habits to overcome in their encounter with electromagnetism, but they have still much of their traditional oral culture that has the total, unified ‘field’ character of our new electromagnetism. Our old industrialized areas, having eroded their oral traditions automatically, are in the position of having to rediscover them in order to cope with the electric age.”

ibid, pp 153 – 4, quoting Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw Hill, 1965

Deloria, McLuhan, and the Traditionalists all see eye to eye on this point (also echoed in the works of such diverse thinkers as Ernst Jünger, Herbert Marcuse, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, and Frithjof Schuon): that “primitive” cultures have certain advantages integrating changes in communication because they never suffered the breakage of industrialization. Technology is not itself the problem; mechanization is. Mechanization, per Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (Beacon Press, 1991), paradoxically specializes us but also flattens us out as we transform into mere interchangeable parts to be replaced when worn out.

This much is true enough. But alienation has been part of the human experience for as long as records can show. Vedic astrology records it in its interpretation of the last three signs of the Zodiac; the oldest stratum of Vedic astrological lore, the Nakshatras, discuss subjective alienation at length; mystical documents as diverse as Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, Corpus Hermeticum, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms of King David attest to it loudly. Where some Traditionalists look to the early modern period, others to the Renaissance or late medieval, still others to pre-Mughal India or pre-Christian Greece and Rome, and a few “primitivist” sorts pre-Roman northern and western Europe, there’s no evidence of the kind of integrated spiritual utopia they desire. It’s the same mistake as New Agers in the ’80s and ’90s looking to pre-Columbian American civilizations for examples of social perfection.

Where ideas like the Yugas and the Ages break down is just here: there’s no evidence whatsoever that human society has ever, anywhere, at any time, reached uniform levels of enlightenment. Chances are good that the smaller the society, the healthier it is, but that’s more a matter of homogeneity and the relative simplicity of interactions with fewer areas of potential conflict, and there’s no putting that particular genie back in the bottle. Such times and places still had many of the “signs of decadence” which modern Traditionalists see today — intermarrying with other ethnic and cultural groups, homosexuality, recognition of more than two genders which may or may not be tied to physical sex, young people pushing for innovations, resisting abusive leadership, etc.

But for as much as I criticize Traditionalism’s frankly silly idealization of a past which never existed, we also go astray in idolizing current notions of progress. Progress is neither inevitable nor universally desirable; progress is a morally neutral term. It refers to movement toward an objective; that objective isn’t guaranteed to be the right one, or even a clear one, and the movement isn’t necessarily the best way to go about the process.

Even if Kali Yuga, the Age of the Holy Spirit, and the Aeon of Horus were all literally true, we would have no way of clearly delineating where one ended and the other began; Treta and Kali yugas would blend together at their edges and we wouldn’t know when we were for sure anyway. But if none of these are historical facts, they provide us with metaphors to guide us. They give us a framework for questioning the past and the present and comparing their responses. They give us a shorthand for what what we find best in humanity, for the potential we see in ourselves and in our society as a whole. If we are as cautious about it as conservatives claim to be, as pure-minded as Traditionalists wish they were, and as idealistic as progressives try to be, we can navigate our present and see our way forward. Learning from the past is one thing; obsessing over it — especially over a fictitious version of it — simply retards growth. Learning demands not only knowledge of the past, it also requires awareness of the present, and facing the future with openness.

Kali Yuga is the World of Darkness. Apparently, we live in it. We can deal with our sense of alienation — however it may arise for each of us individually — either by deepening our delusions or by trying to dissolve them. A lot of us who get involved in the occult and esoteric spirituality do so, in part, because of what we feel sets us apart. Whether we’re really much different from those around us, whether anyone else ever sees it, the choice of how we handle it is a personal, spiritual one. It will have inevitable consequences on how we interact with the world, but it is still basically interior. The World of Darkness games were obsessed with an impending Apocalypse, much as our own world. We may not have a choice in what gets revealed, but we do get a say in what we do with that information.

Next time, we’ll look a little more at what that means.

When Nonduality Meets Reality

Clouded Moon over Beechwood Boulevard

As I walked beneath the Moon tonight
We seemed to draw nearer one another.
The Lord’s great ropey knotted tresses
Revealed themselves a net of light
Trawling vast universes for those souls
Jarred loose
Unmoored
By the cruelty of petty gods & pettier men.

Normally, I avoid current events in this blog — not because I have no thoughts on matters of worldly concern, but because I prefer for this blog to retain a sort of purity, to be timeless. A few of my recent articles have indirectly dealt with some of the fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic, but I tried to do so in a way which would have been useful even had that virus never arisen and will remain useful years from now when the world’s concerns may be quite different. Yoga, magic, and so forth, aren’t singular entities, but tool kits which need to contain more than a single hammer. This blog is something of an addendum to my own diary. The details which stay in my own journals are either irrelevant to anyone else, private to myself, or broadly fall into the category of what modern occultists have taken to call “UPG” — unverified, or unverifiable, personal gnosis. Only those insights of possible use to others which come of ritual, meditation, divination, or just plain old life experience, and which I feel I have the capacity to communicate by the written word, make their way here.

But we’re in strange territory, here. It’s not 100% unprecedented, as a lot of newspaper editorials seem to think, but it’s certainly rare. The events of the day aren’t such that I can pass them over without remark. Black Americans, and other people of color, as well as sexual minorities here in the States — including those of Latin and Hispanic descent, American Indians, those of Chinese and other Asian ethnic descent, homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people, and others besides whose names and titles I do not know or who I (apologetically) am currently forgetting — are demanding that their voices be heard above the din of those of us of (broad) European descent, and many of us (never enough!) are at last listening, stepping aside, and trying to amplify them. This is happening in the midst of the same global viral pandemic. Incredible numbers of people around the world are gathering in solidarity, as well as bringing this movement together with their own native struggles, in spite of medical risks; however we may feel about that part of it, the bravery is undeniable and admirable. I’m never particularly optimistic about mass movements, but this one looks (both on the ground and astrologically) to be a genuine turning point.

I myself am angered by the treatment of human beings at the hand and by the boots, cudgels, and bullets of other human beings. Whether for reasons of racism, nationalism, religious zealotry, or any other attempted justifications, this behavior and these ideologies are unacceptable. But here’s where things swerve neatly back to the project of this blog:

My anger does not arise from fear or hatred. It arises from love and the nondual experience of Yoga. I’m human; I feel fear, hatred, and anger like anyone else. But the yogi seeks to disentangle emotions and other mental and neurological processes from one another to spot their real source in experience. Often enough, this process will cause a lot of mental events simply to dissolve and their neurological correlates to calm themselves for energy to divert where it is really needed. Sometimes, though, the seemingly unmoored thoughts and feelings can be traced even further back to something yet deeper. Whatever their cause, mental events are movements in the substance of consciousness; these can be pathological (which is to say, arising from the kleshas) or they can be health-promoting. Ultimately, we seek stillness of mind, but while we’re here in both subtle and gross material bodies, there will be some jostling about; we’d best make it work toward our goal, undermining dangerous patterns rather than creating new ones.

Contrary to Western expectation, there is no obligation for the yogi to be kind everyone. That’s a fine enough ideal to hold for oneself, but it cannot be universal; each yogi has their own mission to fulfill and each guru their own teaching modality. Trying to fit them all into the same box will lead to disappointment at the least, and could well keep the student from their appointed teacher. Compassion, however, is a different story.

True, unconditional love and compassion arise from the nondual experience, from the sure knowledge that there are no “others” to speak of. But compassion doesn’t always look like kindness to all indiscriminately. Often, it looks like calling out or putting a stop to the unskillful behavior of others with precisely as much force as is necessary under present conditions. This only happens when we begin to examine root causes and start to learn which behaviors are usefully interfered with and which need to run their course. When doing so, recall that individuals have their karmas, but so do cultures, societies, nations, and civilizations. Roots may grow in many layers of soil, often all at once.

Karma is just what we call the web of causality which we each must navigate; like a spider’s web or a fisher’s net, those karmas woven tight are difficult to escape. Strands will snap when pressure is applied to them but only if they have been undermined, often by building small actions over time like the use of a file on thick rope. When the nets of both the individual and of some broader body like a church, a family, or state line up fatefully, it can be almost impossible for that individual to find a gap or a weak spot. And so the hard work of change comes upon us.

The principle of karma is that life is, at base, fair. This will raise some hackles for those of us who care about social and economic justice. But look back at the above paragraph and you can begin to unpack; fair and just aren’t always the same. We live in an inherently imperfect (as made visible by our lights) universe. Though this universe is a Self-revelation of God (Parama Siva, Brahman, Mahaivairocana-Buddha, the Unknown Father) and every minute speck of it is alive unto itself, it is yet one in which we are made to seek for the One behind and in it; hence why Nathas can simultaneously affirm that we are awash in the most obvious ocean of divinity and yet call this selfsame Consciousness Alakh Niranjana — the Imperceivable Spotless One. As I hinted at earlier, we each have our own “mission”. This is not merely some worldly assignment of the love-and-light sort, though for some it may take that shape; we each have our own particular and peculiar bondage to release, so each must be got rid of in a way unique to it. Often, this demands address and aid from other beings, physically embodied or otherwise. Not everyone is here just yet to find their Satguru — or perhaps they’ve already found and been found, but require interactions with the Guru in a variety of forms and phenomena. Thus it is likewise the commission of many of us to be those forms and phenomena, knowingly or not. Nondual compassion, then, is making the attempt to be that form with some awareness of our place in the Whole, and so when placed by fate in circumstances proper for it to aid others in dissolving their bonds, those karmas, kleshas, and konditions* which hold them from experiencing the Peace, Freedom, and Happiness which is theirs by right merely of existing.

The nondual experience of the Natha Yogi is absolute, but it is radical in that it does not flush away, obviate, or sublate difference and distinction; rather, it finds the plurality within nondual Reality and the nondual Reality in all particulars. When we catch so much as a glimpse of this Beatific Vision, we may begin to carry out our duties — svadharma — as the glories of our own wills — svatantra; such duty is no longer bondage but Freedom and Awakening. Pray and contemplate that we not only have this experience and carry the ever-widening cosmic vistas it permits us into our lives, day by day, in the way most appropriate for each unique phenomenal moment.

*”Konditions”, spelled with an initial k, was a humorous literary choice made by Shri Gurudev Mahendranath when referring to the variety of forms of social programming we each undergo. He referred to karmas, kleshas, and konditioning collectively as “the KKK matrix” which we each must overcome. I chose to retain Dadaji’s idiosyncratic spelling not only to honor the source of my terminology but also because “KKK” as a foundational set of problems seems satirically apropos.

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)
2015
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.

The Magic Circle: Its Functions & Applications

There is no occult tool or esoteric symbol more ubiquitous and well-known than the magic circle. It is found everywhere from famous poetry to popular fiction, and is usually associated with the summoning of demons or the spirits of the dead for some nefarious purpose. This, of course, is due to the infinitely greater social and economic hunger for sensationalism than for reality, but it at least almost guarantees that just about everyone who has ever read a novel involving an evil wizard will at least have heard of the concept. Magicians of all stripes are quick to point out the importance of a proper magic circle in many types of magical practice, yet relatively little has been written about the precise purpose, make-up, and meaning of the circle. With this article, I seek to add my own contribution, however minor, to the available resources.

Perhaps due to the aforementioned lack of accessible literature on the subject, there are a lot of misconceptions even among those who call themselves magicians. From the amateur practitioner who will be hard-pressed to get beyond the most basic forms of practice without this information, to the experienced sorcerer who insists that the circle is an unnecessary accretion resulting from Judeo-Christian fears of spirits, there are a lot of ways to misconstrue the circle’s significance. Making the situation even more complex is the fact that there is not just one magic circle. I do not mean the many possible physical forms it may take — from the many kinds inscribed with symbols of all sorts and supposed to be made from various (usually expensive) materials found in common grimoires, to one roughly scratched into dirt or drawn with chalk — though these do make the question even more difficult, at first. I am instead referring to the fact that the magic circle is a dramatically different animal in the hands (and, more importantly, in the minds) of practitioners at different levels of the Art.

What follows is my own vocabulary; as far as I know, nobody else has written about these distinctions in precisely this way. I have chosen the terms for precision, though it must be said at the outset that the division of ideas here is not always as clear or hard-line as the application of such terms may make it seem. My intention is not to divide all practitioners or their constructs up into three completely exclusive groupings, but to present the three major coordinates along a single continuum. With that preface, let’s explore.

 

Sorcery is often used coterminously with magic. But sorcery is not quite the same thing; it is formulaic in nature, basically magic done without a real understanding of the underlying laws, principles, and forces. It would be just as reasonable to call this “witchcraft”, though given the specific connotations that word has taken on among occultists in recent decades, I prefer to call this sort of ignorant tampering “sorcery”. “There is no ‘black magic’, but rather sorcerers groping in the dark. They grope in the dark because the light of gnosis and mysticism is lacking.” (Meditations on the Tarot, corrected edition 2002 Tarcher/Putnam, pg. 43)

We need look no further than the popular grimoires to see the function of magic circles in the context of sorcery. Inscribed with unexplained symbols and signs, and usually with corrupted kabbalistic or Grecco-Egyptian words and names of power, these circles are presented as indispensable protection against the demonic powers to be called up from the depths. In fact, this is quite true. To attempt a goetic evocation without such divine protection will almost certainly result in complete failure, and if any “success” is had, it will definitely be of a very dangerous sort. The sorcerer’s circle is nothing more than a barrier, a line drawn in the sand (sometimes literally) between the sorcerer and the particular force or intelligence which he hopes to make his slave.

Of course, very few modern attempts at this sort of formulaic evocation come to much because most contemporary sorcerers lack the one essential element which makes not only the circle effective, but all other elements of the experiment as well: belief. Of course the modern sorcerer has some basic belief that magic works, or else why bother in the first place? But how many of them get the spectacular phenomena promised in the grimoires? These results are not impossible, but they do rely on what Joseph Lisiewski called “subjective synthesis”. (Ceremonial Magic & The Power of Evocation, 2008 New Falcon Publications) This synthesis is simply the sum total of the sorcerer’s belief in all of the individual elements of the ritual to be performed; this is why, traditionally, there is a long period of training and preparation which generally involves daily prayers of purification, attending Mass and taking the consecrated Host, etc. Sorcery almost requires involvement in some established, organized religion. This faithful involvement provides the sorcerer with three essential elements: discipline, a preexisting context and core beliefs upon which to build the subjective synthesis, and the protection of a powerful egregore. Without all of these, the use of systems of sorcery derived from the grimoires (which describes nearly all of Western ceremonial and ritual magic) is a simple impossibility, and these preconditions can only be met with a firm faith over against the “sophistication” of thoroughgoing skepticism found in most post-modernist approaches to magic popular since Aleister Crowley put pen to paper.

The sorcerer’s magic circle is then a spacial delimitation of the sorcerer’s own sense of purity in accordance to his adherence to his religion. It is an external barrier empowered not by the sorcerer himself, but by the egregore to which he is attached and with which he identifies. A Catholic summoner is pure by his Baptism, has authority by his Anointing, and is protected by his Communion, and this whole edifice, however subjective, must be externalized in the form of his circle inscribed with the names of archangels and made ready by aspersion in order for the whole internal structure to be efficacious.

It is a different story for the magician — the practitioner who has come to know something of the real workings and relationships of the forced made use of in magic — and the theurgist — who has more or less mastered these forces. The magician does not require protection so much as isolation; for him, the circle is a sterile laboratory to be filled only with a single force or mixture of forces, and only to the precise point of saturation. It is a miniature cosmos which represents the inner cosmos being built up within the magician himself, and strictly under his control. William G. Gray has it that “[to] construct a Magic Circle is to create Inner Cosmos according to Intention.” More:

Naturally the individual ability of the operator is a decisive factor, upon which the efficacious degree of any circle depends. Circles do not put themselves together without a directing will, whether they are Cosmic creations of a Divinity, or the personal cosmoi of human beings, both of which a genuine Magic Circle should intersect.” (Inner Traditions of Magic, 1984 Samuel Weiser, Inc., pg 124)

Franz Bardon makes the point similarly:

The drawing of a circle symbolizes the Divinity in Its perfection, to come into contact with the Divinity, namely when the magician stands in the center of the circle, whereby, symbolically expressed, the connection with the Divinity is graphically represented. For the magician it is a connection with the macrocosm on the highest level of his consciousness. It is therefore completely logical from the point of view of true magic for the magician to stand in the center of a magic circle with the awareness of being at One with his universal divinity. This clearly shows that the magic circle is not only a diagram for protection against undesirable influences, but it also expresses untouchability and unassailability as a result of connecting one’s consciousness with the Highest. Therefore, a magician who stands in the center of a magic circle is protected from all influences, be they good or evil, because he symbolizes the Divinity in the universe. Besides, a magician who stands in a circle is God himself in the microcosm, who rules the beings which are created in the universe and he is the one who exercises his absolute powers.” (The Practice of Magical Evocation, translated by Dieter Rüggeberg, 2001 Merkur Publishing, pp 22 & 23)

In both cases, what is central is not merely the magician’s human knowledge of the inner forces, but his operative identity with the Deity. Bardon emphasizes this identity, while Gray stresses the necessity of an intersection between the magician’s cosmos and the Deity’s Cosmos. In other words, the magician needs to be careful lest his cosmos lack proper correspondence to the world. The reason for this is twofold.

First is that the purpose of magic is not to escape reality, but to interact with it as intimately as possible. We can only do this if our inner worlds and the outer world correspond to one another. Second is that, in order for the worlds to directly interact with one another, that correspondence is a strict precondition; if we wish to make changes in the outer world, we must begin with a model of that world and restructure said model accordingly. The more exactly the worlds correspond in the first place, the more effectively will the modifications be able to manifest between one plane and another. God works from subtle to gross, and so must we. The height of theurgy comes when the inner world more or less exactly reflects the outer world, down to details, at which point changes made to the inner world will flow quite naturally to the outer.

But, in order for any of this to be possible in the first place, the magician must construct the sterile chamber of experiments. In the same section quoted above, Gray refers to the magic circle as the Zero from which comes the All. Before the interior of the cosmos may be populated, there must first be made a space, relatively empty. This śunya, or void, is not absolutely empty — for ontologically speaking there is no such thing as “nothing” — but is empty relative to God’s Fullness. (Of course, this conception may be flipped, as in the case of Buddhism, Abrahamic apophatic theology, and Śaiva Siddhānta, in which the Absolute is the Void insofar as the Ground of Being is unrecognizable to our minds and senses.) Now is not the time to get into all of the elements of ritual magic and their uses and implications, but it is useful here to mention that if the magic circle is the śunya, the magician’s own will and intention serves as the bindu, or point, at its center which gives us the following diagram:

Sol

This, of course, is the astrological and alchemical symbol of Sol, our sun. The entire symbol is not intended to signify the Sun, but only the point in the center; the circumference represents the solar system, or the sphere of Sol’s direct influence. The whole thing is a diagram of Sol, his radiation, and his gravitation. So it is with the magician, who stands at the center of his own cosmos both emitting the force of will and drawing in those powers which cannot resist the inexorable pull of his dynamism. However, in order for any of this to be possible, there must first be a space made which the magician may then fill with the desired influences, and that is the magician’s circle.

Physically speaking, the magician’s circle may take literally any shape. As it is only acting as a psychic “clean zone”, the simpler it is the better it will play its part. The complicated inscriptions of the sorcerer are unnecessary, and may only serve as a distraction. Whatever action is taken for the circle’s consecration — aspersion with holy water, anointing with oil or other substances, prayers and invocations, etc. — are taken for their esoteric (i.e. inward) value, rather than their exoteric religious significance. Though the magician still requires his “subjective synthesis”, his is more plastic than the sorcerer’s, adaptable to gradual shifts and tweaks toward new ends. As such, his physical circle serves only as a visual reminder and conceptual anchor of his place and role.

 

As we have seen, the definition of these circles is largely a function of the practitioner’s relationship to the forces with which he or she is experimenting. Those for whom the inner forces behave as largely external require protection; those who know the forces to be inward, but still require some degree of externalization require isolation; but, finally, those who know and experience the forces entirely inwardly — whose laboratory has been perfectly integrated — require concentration. These are the alchemists.

The business of the alchemist, whether working with plant and mineral in the outer laboratory or with himself in the inner laboratory, is the concentration and transformation of substance for the release of essence. The alchemist has already integrated all of the forces or, more precisely, has located those forces within himself; he has also mastered the isolation and focusing of those forces. What remains is to concentrate them and, ultimately, sublimate them. The purpose of the alchemist’s circle is hinted at very directly in the diagram of the Umbra Zonule Meditation (the circle structure of the International Nath Order), the upper right hand corner of which displays an alchemist’s retort. (Shri Gurudev Mahendranath, The Londinium Temple Strain, 2002 electronic edition, http://www.mahendranath.org/, pg 9) The retort is an egg-shaped bottle with a tube spout which swoops downward and away from the bottle; a fluid boiled in the retort condenses against the top of the tube spout and runs down into another vessel at the bottom. (See image below.)

Retort

(Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language of 1908, http://www.gutenberg.org/)

 

This tool of laboratory alchemy when used in reference to “inner alchemy” represents the process of concentrating substances by removing what is nonessential from them. The Śaiva symbol for this process is the vel or spear of Lord Murugan, which hones in precisely on the heart of whatever it pierces. The idea of “concentration” thus comes into play in two ways to refer to the same notion: finding the essence within a substance.

The alchemist’s circle, then, is no longer an external barrier at all, but more the representation of a process. The alchemist may visualize a circle around him and his meditation and worship space during focused times of operation, but that is only an aid. The circle representing the practitioner’s identity with the Divinity is now experienced as being not different from one’s own Heart or Center; the circle of Zero (śunya) and the point of One (bindu) are understood to be identical. In terms of Yoga, the goal is now to realize this by uniting Śakti with Śiva at the crown. Again, Murugan’s vel shows the way, as the upward-pointed spear’s tip rests just at the crown of the head, its hilt running the length of the spine. To return to the astrological diagram of Sol, we learn that the point in the center is the practitioner’s spinal column as viewed from above.

 

My readers can see that I have chosen to use largely Western terms to define the magic circle and the stage of practice which they represent. This is not because those are the only appropriate words, but because they are the most familiar to most occultists, and because the Eastern literature already has its own deep examinations of this topic.

We may see in the sorcerer, magician, and alchemist, for instance, the Śaivite phases of caryā, kriyā, and yoga. One in the phase of caryā requires all of the traditions of ritual worship, moral commandments and ethical guidelines, and other externalities. This is not a bad thing, but a set of necessary prerequisites to deeper work. One in kriyā still makes use of these tools, but sees them now as means and methods for achieving a profounder participation in the Divine Work by way of living symbols and continual reorientation of self-identity. The Yogi — in a sense, one is a Yogi the whole way through, but is only fully and deliberately engaged in the process of Reintegration during this third phase — is able to fully integrate all of the symbols previously externalized. In caryā, the sacrificial fire is more or less literal, and kriyā it is an outward symbol of the inner Flame; in Yoga, there is so little distinction between outward fire and inward Flame that only the Flame itself is necessary (though a fire may still be used when it is necessary to communicate the processes to others, especially those in the caryā and kriyā stages.) As to the circle itself, it may take the forms of circles of chains of practitioners, mandalas large enough to sit inside of, or the simple act of taking āsana.

None of the earlier phases are abandoned. The higher does not sublate the lower, but integrates it, recontextualizes it, and maintains its value as a teaching tool and aid to advancement. Eventually, the plant whose roots are caryā, whose stalk is kriyā, and whose leaf and branch are yoga, blossoms as jñana (gnosis) which ripens as the fruit of mokșa (liberation). In the fruit resides the entirety of the plant in seed form, root to flower. These seeds may be planted by the initiating preceptor in the muck of the student’s mind, that the lotus will grow therefrom. And so goes Reintegration.

 

Here we have the Triple Circle of the Art. In one sense, the Outer Circle is alchemy, in that it contains the other two; in another sense, the Outer Circle is sorcery, in that it is the most exoteric among them. Ultimately, the three are One, as the true Circle of Art does not permit of divisions, but in practice we may distinguish between them as phases of a single process. As Draja Mickaharic so wisely wrote:

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. The fact that many religious sects speak and act harshly against those who have the ability to practice magic is most revealing of the true character of the leaders heading those religions. Those whom they speak against may be more developed spiritually than the so-called religious people who speak against them! (Practice of Magic, 1995 Samuel Weiser, Inc., page iiiv of the Introduction)

Likewise, we can say that while we may not be able to recommend the practice of sorcery, it is often a stepping stone into genuine theurgy, which itself leads us to alchemy. There is but one Way, but many ways may bring us to it.

In practice, the magic circle manifests the magician’s own internal process, its power and function depending entirely upon the individual’s degree of attainment. It is the one indispensable magical tool, no matter the form it takes, because it truly represents the practitioner’s own Heart.