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)

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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

Aleister Crowley: An Assessment

“I think the fault is mine.” ~ Aleister Crowley

Numerous attempts have been made to produce a life of Aleister Crowley, each with their own interpretation of his meaning, intent, and effect. So far, the most objective among them has been Do What Thou Wilt, by Lawrence Sutin (who, incidentally, wrote a very good biography of Philip K. Dick, another controversial spiritual figure). With that and other documents out there, my intention is not to attempt even a short summary of Crowley’s life. Different interpretations, however, always have a place.

Aleister Crowley, like a lot of extreme people, is an ambivalent figure, combining Oscar Wilde, Eliphas Levi, and the Marquis de Sade into a single man. My own view of him was, for many years, quite dark. I could not understand how anybody saw anything redeeming in him. He was a heroin addict, a sex fiend, an abuser of women and children. Then again, I’m a fan of Philip K. Dick, who abused hard drugs, had a few psychotic breaks, was known to treat his wives very badly, and neglected his children. Yet many of those who criticize Crowley are quick to defend PKD, saying that he was a misunderstood visionary, a mortal man who was not strong enough to withstand the force of the revelations forced upon his mind. Neither man makes a good role-model. Both lives serve as warnings to those of us who seek magical and mystical experiences: don’t go deeper than you’re ready to go, and don’t use artificial aids which may push you faster than you can handle. Or, to invoke the old magical warning: Do not call up what you can’t put down.

 

In a different way, both men serve as inspirations. Neither one let artificial social norms stop him from pursuing the revelations he sought.
An Orthodox Jewish friend of mine is also an ardent ethical vegan. Many other Orthodox Jews give him trouble over this decision, as they read the Bible as divinely mandating meat-eating. Even those who don’t read the Bible in this way still have a point to make: What about when the Temple is rebuilt, and animal sacrifices are reinstated? It will then be the absolute responsibility of every Jew to make those prescribed sacrifices according to Torah. Will my friend, then, defy the laws which he considers to be perfectly binding upon himself and his coreligionists?

By no means, he says. If tefillin must be made with a leather strap and tendon thread, or if his God requires him to take animals to sacrifice to the Temple of Jerusalem (and subsequently eat some of the cooked animal), he will do so even while continuing to eat vegan because Divinity is infinitely larger than veganism. That doesn’t make veganism unimportant, but it does make it unimportant by comparison.

Like Abraham and Isaac, and Kierkegaard’s “divine transgression of morality), the quest for God is a confoundingly large concern. Coming into any sort of contact with Divinity—especially when one is not ready for it, as has been the case not only with PKD, but also with the biblical prophets, Zoroaster, and probably many others—can be harrowing or even shattering. Without proper training (i.e. Yoga, Tantra, ceremonial magic, kabbalistic prophecy tutelage, etc.), the human mind-body complex is simply not capable of channeling the forces involved in anything like a healthy manner. Divinity is, from a human perspective, inherently and disturbingly transgressive. It is for this reason that most methods of preparation for divine communion involve some degree of separation and/or transgression, albeit within a disciplined context. This, among other things, helps to clear away certain psycho-energetic blockages, permitting a clear pathway for a sudden influx of force to flow where it needs to go without causing any damage along the way.

My claim is that many of Crowley’s transgressive acts—from his sometime-homosexuality to his drug experiments, his demonic evocations to his darkly erotic art—were efforts along these lines. The tragedy is that, in the modern West, he did not have a full and living tradition from which to draw for his methods and, thus, he had no safeguards to keep the process from merely uncorking his own lowest instincts. We see this problem again and again with the modern occult “scene”, as well. To paraphrase Bishop Stephen Hoeller, many Gnostics today are not people you would invite to dinner! Crowley was a more extreme example than usual, in part because he had tighter morés against which to act, but mostly because he was much more mentally active than the typical occultist. In short, the higher you go, the farther you have to fall.

 

Sri Gurudev Mahendranath—long before he had earned that name—knew Aleister Crowley in the days long after the Abbey of Thelema and would visit his flat in London. He made plain that his experiences with Crowley were nowhere near as dark as the common allegations made by those with an axe to grind. That said, Crowley’s successes were also his undoing. When asked about losing communion with his own Holy Guardian Daimon (a term which I prefer to “Angel”, due to the cultural assumptions surrounding that word), Crowley responded with a shake of the head and outstretched palms, and said, “I think the fault is mine.” (Mahendranath 2002, pg 4)

This statement hides a lot of depth, and I think reveals a degree of self-awareness not often attributed to Crowley by his most ardent critics. It is known more widely, thanks to the aforementioned biographies of the man, that in his later years he once responded to a newspaper article referring to him as a black magician, “If I’m a black magician, I’m a bloody good one.” This was not, as some occultists like to think, the quip of a man proud of his legacy; it was the bitter defense of a man who knew his own failures with an intimacy which escapes many of us.

 

Are Crowley’s books and essays worth the effort of reading them? The man was prolific, whatever else one thinks of him. He left behind him a vast corpus of prose and poesy, mostly on magic but even on mathematics and chess. Much of it is fascinating reading, but none of it is indispensable. Crowley’s writings are rarely innovative, and what innovations he made are only modern presentations of ages-old methods. More than Magick: Book 4 (“the Big Blue Brick”), more than The Book of the Law, and more than The Book of Thoth, Crowley’s single most useful and most insightful book is Magick Without Tears. (Crowley 1991) Many of his earlier works are the result of a powerful mind caught-up by his own arrogance, but Magick Without Tears is the product of that same mind looking back on a lifetime of mistakes and teasing out the lessons from them.

A careful reading of Magick Without Tears reveals Crowley the man. He was not the Prophet of a New Aeon, nor a magical messiah, but neither was he the devil in human form. Aleister Crowley was a deeply flawed man of the very highest ambition. He was a villain not in the comic book sense, but in the literary sense: not purely evil, but so assured of his own cleverness that he fell into many evil habits. Unlike most fictional villains, however, Crowley was able to live long enough to see his mistakes for what they were. In the final analysis, Crowley’s vast intellect and incredible energy were not alone enough to raise him above the condition of humanity, leaving him as the rest of us: a victim of his own karma.

Citations
Crowley, Aleister. (1991). Magick without tears. Tempe, Arizona: New Falcon Publications.

Mahendranath, Sri Gurudev. (2002). The londinium temple strain. Available from http://www.mahendranath.org/londinium/londinium.pdf

Sutin, Lawrence. (2002) Do what thou wilt: A life of Aleister Crowley. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Book Review: “Cave of the Numinous” by Craig Williams

Tantric Physics I: Cave of the Numinous”
Craig Williams, a.k.a. Yogacharya Dharma Rakshaka
Theion Publishing, 2014
159 pages, hardbound (540 copies), leatherbound (60 copies)

First of all, let me say a little something about the artifact itself. As a small press limited run, this book is a beautiful little gem upon my shelves. The hard cover is done in a “wine-red” cloth, with a gold-leafed impressed yantra on the front, and the spine is impressed with a gold-leafed author name, title, and publisher logo. There is no dust jacket. It is simple and elegant. I was not fortunate enough to have gotten one of the 60 leatherbound copies of the “Auric Edition”, which was done in dark-vine goat leather, hand-lettered, with a special page sigilized and signed by the author, though photos of it are gorgeous.

The author is a friend of mine and, if I may be so bold as to say, something of an informal teacher, as well. I say this for full disclosure, but also because it has something to do with the book itself. You see, the depth, compassion, and honesty of Cave of the Numinous go a long way toward explaining exactly why I have come to consider Craig to be a friend and colleague in a relatively short period of time.

The Foreward, by Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya, does an excellent job of introduction. Acharya-ji points out a lot of the social obstacles to genuine spirituality, and expresses plainly why Craig’s book is a good antidote. Like any antidote, of course, there must first be a diagnosis, then the antidote must be properly administered and duly taken, which Acharya-ji emphasizes.

Prior even to Craig’s introduction, we have David Beth’s short essay, “Supreme Katabasis: Kaivalya and the Kosmic Gnosis”. I admit to having been rather puzzled by this essay, at first. It seemed, on the surface, to contradict much of what I know Craig to say, practice, and teach. By the end of the essay, though, I came to see that the problem is semantic. Beth spends much of the essay demonizing “spirit” and “logos”, which threw me for a bit of a loop. After all, Logos is the sun Who emanates all Gnosis, and Spirit is the individual core! What spirituality is possible without them? But Beth hints at his true intent right from the start: He is using the Aristotelian interpretations of “body, soul, and spirit” to accord more with the mistakes of modern ideologies which place reason in a position of priority, with the deeper and more exalted Intellect (budh) with its capacity for intuitive discrimination (viveka) being ignored or outright denied. In this case, “logos” is not the same as “Logos”; rather than being the enlivening Word, Beth refers to the tendency to dissect and measure — the letter which kills the spirit. This twist of language makes a greater point than initially appears: By pointing out the artificial opposition between the Transcendent and the Immanent, Beth turns our expectations in on themselves to reveal that there can be no real opposition between noumena and phenomena, essence and substance, but that the first inheres in the second, as the second expresses the first. It is the duty of the jivas (souls) to embody this dynamic Unity (spirit) through purified powers of observation (body), but that is only possible once we are able to understand the true nature of our task, as opposed to the flawed picture of it given over to us by faulty or incomplete educations. It is, in that sense, a restatement of the difficulty which René Guénon called the overtaking of Quality by Quantity.

From here, we get into Cave of the Numinous proper. I could go chapter by chapter, but that would not give the book proper due. It is not a book of analysis, of mere facts, but of digestion and synthesis. This is a book of yogic alchemy, as much talismanic as it is textual. More than a manual of technique, Cave of the Numinous is a long, breathy love-song to the Guru and an ode to Sakti, the Dark Goddess.

This is not to say that Craig never gets into practical particulars. In fact, the entire book is instructive. It teaches the reader how to fall in love. Craig gives strong advice in self-knowledge, accessing the slow-burning Alkahest which gradually, but mercilessly and finally, dissolves the bundles and blockages within our body-mind systems. He gives a handful of simple but potent rituals which bring us to deeper communion with the more difficult facets of our own psyches. Above all, this book reminds those of us with genuine Masters how those Masters serve us, and teaches those of us without Masters how we can draw ourselves to our true Master in this very life.

Craig’s approach is deeply traditional, in the best sense. His own life is an example of properly combining the complementary sciences of Jyotish (astrological psychology), Ayurveda (alchemical medicine), Yoga (internal alchemy), and Kriya Yoga (theurgy) into the integratively coherent whole they are intended to be. Cave of the Numinous is, if nothing else, a charged reminder of how we can find our own way there. I feel deeply blessed for having read it, and look forward avidly to the release of future volumes of the Tantric Physics series.

Satanism & Left-Hand Tantra Addendum: Lucifer and Dark Gnosis

Anointed am I
Exalted on a course to man averse
Cloven-hooved my footsteps be
The self withdrawn
Expanding as the rays of death illuminate
The bridge and the path to the waters of Ain

~ “Waters of Ain” by Watain

It must be said that there are indeed those who use satanic imagery and terminology to point to something far deeper and, it may be said, far higher. It is fairly well known at this point that “Lucifer” means “Light-bringer”, a symbolic title which has been applied to nearly every savior-figure, at one time or another. There are even “Christian Luciferians” who apply the title to Jesus. This is done, of course, not in a sense of irony, but from a Gnostic standpoint; if the Prince of Darkness holds sway in this world — functioning as the “god of this world” — the being of Light who came within the cosmic system to show us the way out is surely the Lucifer, by whatever other name we choose to call him. The satanists who take this tack rarely use such Christian imagery, however, but instead draw from Kabbalah, Tantra, Voudou, Quimbanda, and other non-Christian modes.

These satanists may more accurately be called Chaoists — not in the sense of the popular “chaos magic”, but in that they hold Chaos to be higher or more essential than Cosmos. Very often, this is an overly literal understanding of the aforementioned systems of inspiration. In Kabbalah, our cosmic system does indeed emanate from Chaos, but Chaos is not therefore anti-cosmic. Tantra equates Chaos with Nature, the primordial matter and energy of which all universes derive their substance. In both cases, Chaos is not “supreme”. It is a material from which something may be shaped in order that it might perform a function. The “consciousness of Chaos”, whom in Tantra we call Sakti, Kali, Durga, in general ” the Goddess”, is co-eternal with the One Being, Siva, and exists in non-dual relation with Him.

When we speak of Sakti destroying the universe, or else of Siva dissolving the universe, this is not because we find the universe to be of zero value. This is where overly literal thinking causes trouble. There is certainly an inherent tension between Cosmos and Chaos, but only for so long as they remain conceptually separated. This tension is a dynamic one; it is what allows for anything to exist at all. But that existence is contingent. Kabbalists and Tantrikas do not pretend that it is essential rather than apparent.

To say that the act of creation was a mistake may be a helpful metaphor, but it is not (and cannot be) literally true. It only points to the deeper truth that our entrapment within that creation is the result of an error which clings to us. In Saivism, we call this error anavamala, or “the bondage of atomism”. It is the error which arises by the soul’s assumption that it is distinct from other souls and from the Primal Soul whom we call God. It is true, in a sense, that the soul has its own identity, but it has its identity only and ultimately in relation to God. So, the creation of a world in which we are forced into relationships with other souls and “inanimate” matter is hardly a mistake, but it is made necessary by a mistake. The universe is the grit-filled tumbler which polishes us clean of the patina of “separateness”.

The use of satanic imagery may be a useful tool for shocking oneself awake, but only if that person is already on the verge of waking up. Otherwise, it tends only to bolster a sense of division by making the individual feel justified in combativeness, or else plunged into depression over a sense of “entrapment”. These images are not native to Tantra, and the methods which often accompany them are generally not compatible with it. That said, such adaptations have been made, but they are, for the reasons explored in Satanism & Left-Hand Tantra, very rarely useful in the actual process of becoming free.

Satanism & Left-Hand Tantra

The leading misconception about Tantra among non-occultists is that it is all about having explosive sex. But that’s not what I’m writing about, today. The leading misconception about Tantra among occultists is that it is “Left-Hand” means the same thing among Eastern practices as Western. In other words, Tantric practices among Saivas and Saktas are often equated with satanism. There are a lot of problems with this interpretation, almost entirely based in the very different approaches to the broad notion of religion.

At its worst, satanism is a sincere worship or veneration of some notion of embodied evil. I shouldn’t have to go into much detail concerning how silly this is, but it may at least be helpful to point out the fact that Dharmic traditions do not generally even consider evil to be an absolute or archetype. To worship it, then, would not occur to them in the first place. Asuras and other “demonic” entities do make appearances in Dharma, but they’re nothing more than souls living out very different sorts of lives than ourselves. If they are evil, they are evil because of their thoughts and actions, not because of some immutable moral essence.

At best, satanism is an intentional mythologizing of selfish instinctual urges. These satanists — often, though not always, associated with or inspired by Anton LaVey’s “Church of Satan” — interpret Satan and the various other devils and demons of Abrahamic mythology to be personified symbols of their own egos and desires, the various rituals and ceremonies built up around them merely costumed metaphors. A friend of mine once described this form of satanism as “Ayn Rand in a robe” and, as far as sharp summations go, I could do no better.

Both of these “satanisms”, and the gradients between them, are basically nothing more than adolescent rebellions against the norms of the prevailing societies in which they occur. When a person’s notions of religion are based more or less in the Abrahamic traditions, and that person feels constrained and in need of a thorough break from those traditions, their options tend to be just as limited by the surrounding religious environment. Rebellion against the Judeo-Christian God is as simple as inverting the Judeo-Christian script, but that script is still binding!

Those tantriks who take to the especial worship of Kali — by no means the only option, but certainly the one best known of in the West — are not worshiping a demon, do they see themselves as making a pact with the devil, nor as merely turning Vedic Brahmanism on its head. They are practicing a tradition sufficient to itself, without needing reference to an adversary. More, they don’t necessarily believe themselves to be opposed to other sects and approaches. There is no denial of a God of Light; in fact, Saktas tend to see themselves as taking the most congenial route to the Light by way of the comfortable darkness of the merciful and loving Divine Mother. While many “orthodox” Christians might call this satanic, that only points to the paucity of interpretive frameworks they have to draw from and not to any accuracy in the judgment.

Another Tantric tradition often equated with satanism, usually by occultists who think this isn’t a bad thing to be equated to, are the Aghoris. These are a sect of wandering Saiva ascetics who, in an effort to become supremely detached to the ephemera of this world, occasionally perform such acts as meditation atop the greasy ashes left after funeral pyres, using human skulls as begging bowls or even objects of worship, seemingly severe acts of self-abnegation, and so forth. The apparently dark and unkempt visages of the Aghoris and their macabre ritual tools seem to be sufficient for most occultists to brand them as Left-Hand in a similar vein as satanism.

This brings us to the central problem: semantics. Both Dharmic and Western traditions make use of the terms “Right-Hand” and “Left-Hand”, more or less. (The Sanskrit term vama, sometimes used similarly to our “sinister” to mean both left-handed and untrustworthy or wicked, can also mean beautiful, agreeable, refractory, and a number of other nuanced meanings, so using it interchangeably is not always the wisest translation.) The Western traditions, however, do not seem to have a clear or consistent definition of the terms. I have seen the dichotomy put in any number of ways, from the relative position of their focus on the kabbalistic Tree of Life, to the simple “good versus evil”, to the partisan claims that one side is more “free” or more “legalistic” than the other. In Dharma, the definitions are much more, frankly, defined and technical.

In the first place, Tantra itself is not all “Left-Hand”; there are Right-Hand forms of Tantra, and it might sound odd to say so, but some of the most extreme forms of Saiva Tantra which look so sinister to Western eyes, with naked wandering ascetics covered in funereal ash and carrying tridents, lean more toward Right-Hand practice than Left-Hand. The big difference between the two is how they put “the five Ms” into practice. The five Ms are: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain), and maithuna (sex). These are all strictly limited or entirely forbidden to Hindus of the Brahmin varna and, thus, to temple priests and monks; they take on special significance in Tantra not because Tantra seeks merely to annoy and undermine Brahmins, but because Tantra practitioners seek to transcend the categories of “clean” and “unclean”. “Aghori”, the sect mentioned previously, takes its name from “aghora”, meaning “not terrible” or “not repulsive”. An Aghori, then, is “one who is not repulsed” by anything.

Among Tantrics, these five substances have become symbolic of various processes of Yoga, thus:

  • wine becomes intoxicating knowledge;
  • meat becomes the control of speech (and, by extension, thought);
  • fish becomes the pranic channels of Ida and Pingala;
  • parched grain becomes concentration and meditation;
  • and sex becomes samadhi, or total absorption.

The major distinction, then, between the Right-Hand and Left-Hand forms of Tantra is precisely how these symbols are enacted. In Right-Hand Tantra, they are purely symbolic, with the terms used almost as poetic glosses in descriptions of practical methods of Yoga, while in Left-Hand Tantra, they are used quite literally, albeit as ritual sacraments. Neither one is necessarily right or wrong; they are just different modes of accessing the same states. In neither case are they mere excuses for license, as is generally found among Western “Left-Hand” groups. And, to add to the subtlety of Dharmic understanding, it is somewhat rare for an individual practitioner to take an all-or-nothing approach to the five Ms; instead, any given practitioner might, for instance, abstain from the literal consumption of intoxicants and red meat, but may eat fish, parched grains, and forgo celibacy. The practitioner’s lineage of initiation is a factor, here, as is that practitioner’s own practice and sense of right action.

That last concept of “right action” cannot be left dangling. Some modern practitioners of Tantra have adopted something like the Rabelaisian “Do what thou wilt” as their prime ethical dictum, just as have Western followers of Aleister Crowley’s religion of Thelema, who are also often called “Left-Hand”. In genuine Tantra, however, the “thou” is interpreted more as “Thou”; so “Do what Thou wilt” becomes more an invocation than a dispensation for license. Perhaps if Crowley had understood it thus, he would not have beaten every wife and lover he had and died a penniless heroin addict.

So in Tantra, unlike in satanism and Western Left-Hand occultism, morality grows from devotion rather than rationalizing what we already want to do, which brings Tantra — of either dextral orientation — into a stronger resemblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ than of Crowley or LaVey. Those who wish to claim that “all paths lead to the same destination” are ignoring, intentionally or not, the fact that not all tools are equally efficient, and not all “solutions” are intended to address the same “problems”. Equally, similar terms from different contexts are not necessarily cognate.