Astrology as Sadhana

The science of Astrology is the key to Her vast kingdom and the Oracle is Her voice and our understanding.

~ Shri Gurudev Mahendranath

Astrology — or Jyotish as it is known in Sanskrit (literally, “study of light”) — is looked upon with some combination of whimsy and scorn by most in the modern West. It is true that more and more people are taking an interest in the topic, but for most it remains a parlor game or an icebreaker. It may not be as common as it was in the 1970s to ask a prospective date, “What’s your sign?”, but entire natal charts get bandied about on Twitter along with image macro memes of someone doing some horrible thing and the individual posting it saying, “That’s so typically [insert Sun sign here],” or, even worse, “That’s just how we [sign] are!” as if a person’s natal chart justifies rather than gives context to poor behavior and destructive thinking. Alongside all of that, you have astronomers and astrophysicists occasionally jumping in to explain to everybody that “astrology is fake”, “pseudoscience”, “superstition”, or whatever, painting astrologers and their clients with the same brush as Young Earth Creationists.

Unfortunately, most of “astro-Twitter” doesn’t do a fantastic job of shaping up astrology’s image. This isn’t entirely the fault of the people involved, as the medium of Twitter and similar social media simply aren’t conducive to deep discussion. Nevertheless, the arguments persist with both sides sounding like ideologues and petulant children.

In Hindu thought, Jyotish is treated as a science. This often strikes the Western ear a bit funny, so to put it in context, Yoga is also called a science. Both of them are properly scientific in the sense of being empirical: Jyotish and Yoga are based in observations of repeatable experiences. I’m sure any materialist who has stumbled upon this will sneer at that last statement, but who cares? “Scientific materialism” isn’t a real thing because science as a process doesn’t support materialism terribly well, so we can all just move right along.

I don’t study and practice astrology because I came in “believing in” it. Quite the opposite, in fact. In my youth, when I was trying out all sorts of occult and spiritual bits and bobs, astrology immediately proved itself useless to me: every book on it I found at the time seemed empty of value, and the interpretations I read never fit with my experience. (For example, I was always told that because I was born with my Sun in Taurus I was extremely materialistic and obsessed with luxury. If you have ever met me, you know how laughable that is.) This attitude persisted for well over a decade. The symbolism of the planets was useful to me in practical magic, and the planetary days and hours served their purpose in timing certain magical operations, but natal and predictive astrology still seemed like bunk.

That is, until I encountered the astrology of India.

Indian astrology, Jyotish, seemed to have more interpretive depth and mathematical precision. While results obtained with Sidereal placements still didn’t seem quite right, things were at least much more correct this way, enough to make me suspect I had missed something worth the investigation. And here’s where the Guru shows his light once again.

As I spoke, impressed, about the increased accuracy I’d found in Indian astrology complete with its Sidereal calculations — so much better than Western astrology with its Tropical placements — Guruji Sri Kapilnath piped in with a correction and a recommendation: Not all Indian astrology uses Sidereal calculations, and perhaps I should look into the writings of Ernst Wilhelm. Knowing that Kapilji was a very accomplished astrologer himself, I was immediately intrigued enough to follows his direction. That’s when I found drastically increased accuracy, at times almost paranormally so, and I have never looked back.

This aside into my own history as a jyotisha has been necessary to come to the place astrology holds in my life. Yes, it is a skill which makes me money; in fact, I hope for it to become my living. But Jyotish is so much more.

I have come fully to accept that Tantra is incomplete without it. More, Tantra is a shell of itself without Jyotish. While it is true that there is no bad time to worship God if the honest inclination is there, specific applications of Tantric methods are enhanced considerably by appropriate astrological timings. This one can confirm for themselves, just as I have. Tantra and astrology also go together in the methods of remediation: there are many complex and expensive Vedic approaches to the remediation of difficulties indicated in a person’s birth chart, many of which are well out of reach to the average person no matter where in the world they may be — much the same problem with most facets of Vedic religion. But Tantra is by its very nature accessible. That’s not to say it is easy or requires no work, but it is effort within the reach of those who are truly in need of aid.

Even more immediately, astrology is an incredible tool for the self-knowledge demanded by Yoga. The natal chart obviously provides a window onto the nature of one’s own body and mind, but more importantly the very study of astrology itself teaches the astrologer lessons about the nature of body, mind, spirit, and soul which might take decades or lifetimes otherwise. It is a more complete and direct approach to the mysteries of karma and prana than is available in any other practice or study I’ve found outside of the samyama of Yoga itself — and even that is considerably aided by having the subjects of concentration provided by astrology.

Jyotish is thus a remarkable boon to the magician, the Yogi, the curious individual who wants to know more about themselves and to develop proactive strategies for life. It is psychology, philosophy, metaphysics, theology, sorcery, and sadhana all in one, and according to the need of each. I am still pleasantly surprised with each chart reading I do how much useful information I’m able to dig out for my client; not only do I help them to learn about themselves, I learn more about myself, the world, and God.

Energy & Entity in Hatha Yoga

I generally deemphasize Hatha Yoga. It isn’t necessary to yogic attainment and it seems to be an active hindrance for a lot of people who become distracted by it. The Natha tradition is strongly connected, both conceptually and historically, with Hatha Yoga — the systematization of Hatha Yoga was, after all, a Natha innovation within India and all Hatha classics, such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Siva Samhita are Natha compilations or at least credit Sri Gorakhshanath as their primary source. That said, for Nathas themselves Hatha Yoga serves three functions:

  1. Keeping the body in shape amidst hours of meditation & ritual;
  2. Keeping the subtle energy channels clean and clear to aid meditation & ritual;
  3. Keeping monastic and eremitical Yogis busy.

In our Western context, only the first two are immediately relevant, though the last shouldn’t be discounted: Hatha Yoga is at least a better use of our time than a lot of passive forms of entertainment, though taking a walk in a wooded park does most of us at least as much good.

As to points 1 and 2, these are important but can easily be made too much of. One need not be an Adonis to be an effective Yogi or magician. Good physical health certainly reduces distractions and obstacles to one’s practice, and so should be pursued and maintained conscientiously, but stretching and taking long walks is an effective means without having to tie one’s body into knots in the process. Reasonable exercise, a moderate diet, and natural, relaxed breathing — possibly aided by taking certain herbs — already go a long way toward subtle health without having to resort to difficult and potentially dangerous breathing exercises. None of this is to deny Hatha Yoga’s unique combination of benefits. It is just that combination itself is unique, not the benefits individually.

It is at the level of subtle energy that I think Hatha Yoga shines most brightly, and at this level the most benefit can be gained. While they must be approached cautiously, a variety of breathing exercises are especially effective for magicians. A few simple and safe ones (see below) make very effective daily “cleansing” practices and can even be used to clean up simple curses like the infamous Evil Eye. For working magicians (which, like it or not, includes those who prefer to call themselves healers, psychics, shamans, astrologers who include remediation in their practice, and any magician, mystic, or occultist with community ties), such a method of hygiene is an indispensable tool in the toolkit as it requires no equipment, no preparation time, and can be done anywhere with nothing more than a corner or public restroom to retreat to for a couple of minutes. I have many times used the method given below on the grass in wooded parks, sitting in a coffee shop chair, and in a free moment at work. If you have any dealings with spirits at all or do any sort of energy work which can throw your internal balance off — which, between the two, pretty much includes every type of mystic and magician there is — keeping the subtle system clean is incredibly important. Rituals, herbs, and whatever else you may use in your practice are certainly good to keep up, but sometimes, “in the field”, those things will not be available and as a daily practice nothing beats something you can efficiently integrate with your other practices and responsibilities.

A final point about Hatha Yoga which does not receive any attention at all in modern classes and books is that, whether we realize it or not, Hatha Yoga involves spirits and deities. Any time we are dealing with so-called “subtle energy”, what we are really dealing with is consciousness taking different shapes and focusing on different movements (literally and figuratively). This, of course, is your own consciousness as the individual whose physical and subtle bodies are being exercised in Yoga, magic, and so forth, but it is also the myriad of spirits and deities who are also involved the process. The more deliberate we can be in our dealings with them, the better will the energy flow when and where we need it to.

Everyone already knows something of Kundalini, and She is the most significant example of what I mean; as the Trika Yogi Swami Lakshmanjoo put it, “Siva is not the path; Sakti is the path.” A detailed discussion of Kundalini will have to wait for its own article or series of articles, but She at least opens the present topic with a hint of familiarity.

Myriads of spirits and deities can be mentioned in this connection. Some modern Yoga teachers do talk about the various deities associated with the major cakras along the central channel of the body, but they are usually framed as symbolic constructs or mere aspects of the individual psyche. It is important to understand that while the gods are in one sense within the psyche, they are not limited to the individual mind. It is better to think in terms of the gods projecting in and through certain centers of energy in us and those centers of energy containing the gods in question. Magically speaking, each cakra is a gateway to a particular loka or world; this is true alongside the meditative experience of each cakra being a gradation of individual awareness and the Hatha Yoga reality of whirlpools of subtle energy performing or facilitating various psycho-physiological functions. All of these levels are true simultaneously, without contradiction, and they are perfectly interwoven such that a poor relationship with the deity whose loka is reached through a particular cakra has a negative impact on the individual’s health in relation to that center and their capacity to engage with the associated mind-state.

The channels of subtle energy themselves, those which connect the major and minor cakras and which run out from those centers to the organs and extremities, are ruled generally by the Nagas — a class of largely cthonic spirits associated with a certain Underworld, with flowing water, mental activity, and with venomous serpents. Yogis are themselves traditionally connected with the Nagas, sometimes merely culturally but often very literally as Yogis tend to develop relationships with the Nagas. The Buddha, Bodhidharma, and a number of other famous Yogis of India, China, Tibet, Thailand, and Nepal have had direct dealings with the Nagas, sometimes as friends and sometimes as adversaries, while sorcerers and Tantrikas of these same regions are known to make deals with them and try to keep them peaceful for the benefit of their clients and communities. While this is all literally true, it’s also important to see the inner value: just as with the deities of the cakras, if the Nagas are poorly disposed toward the individual, their Yoga (both physical and meditative) will suffer, as will their health. Subtle energy channels can be cleaned and strengthened through propitiation of the Nagas, and angry Nagas can very much cause problems not only in the subtle energy system but also in the physical body by way of the nerves, blood vessels, and digestive tract — all channels ruled by the Nagas.

With all of this given, even the casual Hatha Yoga practitioner would do well to explore more deeply into the human energy system, the subtle bodies, and the relationships of gods and spirits which interweave them. It is only through these that the real inner development, peace, and magical powers promised by the classics of Hatha Yoga can be realized, as Hatha Yoga was originally intended to be practiced as part of a broader and deeper Tantric program.

Purifying Breaths

If possible, sit in a straight-backed, cross-legged posture on the ground or floor. If this is not possible, get as close to it as possible, prioritizing ease of belly breathing over other concerns. This is especially suitable for use immediately before and/or after any other meditation or magical work, as well as at the end of a day out in the world. You can also use these at any free moment throughout the day if you feel the need to recenter, refocus, and psychically shower. I use it during particularly exhausting days, after having dealt with parasitic people, and usually before any physical exercise, energy work, or pranayama.

Put your hands on your knees and begin to breath slowly with your belly; your shoulders should not rise much, if at all, as you breathe in. Once you have a comfortable rhythm, turn your attention to any areas of physical tension; with the next three breaths, direct your attention to them in turn, releasing the tension as you exhale. Repeat this process with the next three breaths, but turning your attention to any areas of your body in which you are holding emotional tension. With the next three breaths, making nine in total, do the same with focus on areas of the body in which you are holding mental tension.

You don’t need to limit yourself to nine breaths with the above, though at least nine breaths should be used to relax sufficiently. Take a few moments between the two phases of this process to feel your body, returning your breath to any areas of retained tension as needed before moving on. If possible, do not rush.

Men and women must use mirrored practices for the next nine breaths; men should use their right hand and women their left. All of the instructions which follow are written for men, as I am a man myself and this is how I do the exercise, but for women simply reverse every instruction related to the nostrils, energy channels, and colors. If you are a trans person or in some other way have a different gender identity than those at the base of this practice, you will have to experiment to see which way works best for you. As far as I can tell, these exercises do not depend upon gender identity but upon one’s sex at birth, but my sample size is admittedly rather small, so try for yourself to see if you seem to get better results using one way or the other. The same is true of all energy work, Tantra, and Yoga practices which depend upon polarity; biological sex at birth appears to be the deciding factor, but it is possible that a significant enough hormonal shift could reverse this and only further experimentation will tell.

Close your eyes and visualize your body as being entirely clean and clear. Within it, instead of the myriad vessels, organs, tissues, and bones, you instead only see the three major energy channels: the central channel is about a pencil’s width just in front of where your spinal column would be, running from your perineum all the way to the crown of your head; the right-hand channel runs from the right nostril, up and curving back behind the right eyebrow, then running just next to the central channel; the left-hand channel runs just like the right one, but from the left nostril. The two side channels do not run all the way down to the perineum as the central channel does, but instead merge with the central channel about four finger-widths below the navel. Do not worry about the details of colors, cakras, and so on for this exercise; it is more productive to see all of the channels and so on as perfectly clear and open, like tubes of diamond running up and down your crystalline body.

Raise your right hand, pressing the tip of your thumb against the base of your ring finger. Press your right nostril shut with your right ring finger and as you inhale visualize light green vapor entering your left channel through that nostril. When the inhalation is complete, move your finger to close your left nostril and gently exhale light blue vapor from your right nostril. (Again, if you are a woman it should be the left hand pressing the left nostril, etc.) Repeat this sequence for a total of three cycles.

The next phase is like the first, but this time press your left nostril closed (still using the right hand) and breathe in green light through your right nostril. Then, move your finger to close your right nostril and breathe out pink vapor from your left nostril. Again repeat for a total of three cycles.

For the last sequence, place your hands palm up in your lap, right hand first with the left hand on top of it. For those accustomed to using dhyāna mudra, resist the temptation to arch your thumbs; just let them rest with your other fingers. (Women put your right hand on top of your left.) Breathe in the light green vapor through both nostrils, but this time when you exhale, visualize a gray smoke shooting out of the crown of your head from your central channel. Again, do this for a total of three cycles.

At the end of these nine breaths, spend a few moments in simple calm before moving on to anything else or returning to your day.

The green vapor you breathe in during the nine purification breaths is pure vitality, pure prāna; as you inhale it, it cleanses the channels through which it moves of psychic grit and grime. When you breathe out light blue vapor, you are exhaling impurities associated with excessive masculinity (such as rlung- or vāta-related illnesses and obstacles related to the past); when you exhale pink vapor, you are exhaling impurities associated with excessive femininity (such as illnesses of pitta and obstacles related to the future); the gray smoke you breathe out through your central channel is composed of impurities having to do with unclean or hostile spirits and illnesses of kapha. You do not need to worry about accidentally exhaling too much of anything, as the exercise will only remove excess or, more precisely, only the impure aspects of the energy in question. The body and mind are thereby strengthened and not weakened, as the subtle forces are able to move more efficiently rather than getting stuck or pooling up where they are not needed. The idea is to keep everything moving and not stagnant.

Even this simple series of breaths is a form of Hatha Yoga. You will immediately note how much simpler and less prone to cause injuries and imbalances it is compared to most of what you might learn in modern yoga classes. While Hatha Yoga can get very intense for certain purposes, most people do not need such practices most of the time. It is generally best to use the gentlest effective methods, especially where health is concerned. Ruin your health and you will find that your entire practice falls apart.

The Five Sources of Pain, Part 3: Approaching the Kleshas

The obstacles on the spiritual path are obstacles in all areas of life. We call them the sources of pain and suffering not just for Yogis and mystics but for every person. Yoga tends to place them front and center, however, so the Yogi needs to have a solid understanding of the Kleshas going in or risk being blindsided. Similarly, the practice of magic seems to exaggerate the role of the Kleshas in the magician. Any involvement in spiritual or occult study and practice therefore benefits from a practical understanding of these knots within us.

My last article, which may have struck some of you as unrelated to the series as a whole, concerned the elements and some of their major relationships with one another. This addendum was necessary to ensure that we have a shared vocabulary for the present discussion: how can we usefully deal with the presence of the Kleshas in ourselves?

The first step is to figure out which Kleshas present the most direct difficulty for you. Forewarned is forearmed. If you have gone through any sort of elemental inventory — such as that found in Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics or its like — you will have an immediate sense of where the sources of pain fit into your own life. Similarly, the prominence of the planets and signs in your natal chart can give you a working map of your inner territory. Excesses and gaps of elemental forces discovered in this way show precisely which Kleshas will be the most immediate and extreme obstacles for you.

While the Kleshas are not precisely elemental, there is a close enough correspondence that the elements can serve as both a map and a point of contact. For starters, compare the pentagram in the elements article with that in the first post of this series. You will see there a correspondence, thus:

  • Space to Ignorance;
  • Wind to Attachment;
  • Fire to Ego;
  • Water to Clinging to Life;
  • Earth to Repulsion.

Much as space among the elements, Ignorance is the root and context for the other four; in a real sense, it is the Klesha, the other four being more particular forms of it. Attachment is the first outward movement of Ignorance as the awareness identifies itself with external objects. This identification gives rise to Ego as a limited sense of self is built up from bits and pieces of the world; this colors the light of awareness and generates a worldview, however complex or rudimentary. Ego begins to experience fear of its own dissolution which results in Clinging to Life. Clinging to Life results in an instinct of Repulsion against that which appears to be a threat to the Ego-identity. Repulsion supports Ignorance by keeping at bay any and all experiences which could serve to adjust, modify, or throw out what one thinks one knows.

So much for the relationships mapped onto the pentagram. The cycle of feeding — the circle around the pentagram — also exists among the Kleshas. Ignorance feeds the Ego by blanketing the soul’s own self-knowledge, necessitating a hasty reconstruction of its own identity out of whatever parts happen to be within reach. Ego feeds Repulsion by giving that instinct something to protect; if Ego is the keep, Repulsion is the fortress wall around it. Repulsion feeds Attachment by demanding a constant stream of identifiable externals to fill the gaps left by everything the wall keeps out. Attachment feeds Clinging to Life in that the more externals with which we identify, the more we fear death which separates us from them. Finally, Clinging to Life feeds Ignorance by keeping us from examining anything which we feel to be threatening.

As with the elements, reversing these relationships shows us a route to starve or dissolve the relevant Kleshas. This is not as straightforward a task as it may at first seem, but it does give us a place to begin. Any effort toward what Franz Bardon calls Elemental Equilibrium is a help in reducing the severity of the Kleshas as a whole. This is a positive insofar as it makes daily life smoother and has positive effects on one’s magical practices, but it does nothing toward the end of dissolving the obstacles altogether — one way of defining the goal of Yoga.

Meditation is the single greatest tool in dealing with the Kleshas. Silent meditation, zazen, mantra japa, and so on, all work toward the goal of dissolution. However, more focused ritual practices and discursive meditation approaches can speed the process up significantly. The next article in this series will explore a couple of these methods in detail. For now, though, I leave you with a simple puja — literally “veneration”, “honor”, or “worship” — of the Lord who overcomes obstacles, Ganapati.

You will need:

  • An image of Ganapati;
  • A small bell;
  • A candle or oil lamp;
  • A vessel of fresh water;
  • A sweet-smelling natural incense (sticks and cones are fine);
  • Fruit, candy, or sweet pastries;
  • Fresh flowers (optional).

Establish for yourself a small altar to Ganapati. If you already have a working space, you may simply set up an image of him there, whether a framed picture or a small statue as befits your space. It is perfectly acceptable to (respectfully) put this image away when not in use, though you may very well find that as you build a relationship with Ganapati you wish to keep his image in a place of prominence: on your altar, in your living room, facing your front door, etc. A pentagram may also be placed near or on the Ganapati image or worn on your person during the practice as a reminder of the Kleshas and the awareness which burns them away.

Give three sharp sounds from the bell, then let it fade completely away before putting the bell back on your altar. Know that you are offering space.

Dedicate the candle (white, orange, red, or yellow) or oil lamp (especially if it burns ghee) to Ganapati. Light it. If you can do so safely, hold it up before the image of Ganapati and make clockwise circles with it between yourself and the image while chanting the mantra Om Gaṁ Ganapataye Namah.* Know that you are offering fire.

Set the light back on the altar. Use its flame to ignite your incense, then repeat the procedure with the smoking incense. Know that you are offering air.

Offer the water in a similar fashion, making clockwise circles with the cup before Ganapati while chanting the mantra. Know that you are offering water.

Finally, offer the food in the same way. Know that you are offering earth.

Sit, with your eyes open and unfocused or closed and relaxed, and continue to chant the Ganapati mantra for as long as you feel inclined. I recommend a minimum of nine repetitions on days when you do not have much time.

As the sound of your final pronunciation of the mantra fades, lapse for a time into silent meditation. You may transition to any form of meditation you usually practice, or else just sit in abidance for an amount of time that feels appropriate.

When finished, extinguish the flame by snuffing or pinching it out. You may drink the water yourself as a blessing; if you do not, pour it out respectfully. Let the food remain (covered or uncovered, as appropriate to the type of food) over night and eat it or distribute it to others the next day as a sacrament. Let the incense burn itself out.

I suggest performing this puja more than once. If possible, make it a daily habit for at least 40 days. Otherwise, it makes a wonderful weekly practice, especially on Wednesdays, monthly on the 4th lunar day (New Moon being day 1), or irregularly just before significant magical or yogic practices are begun.

*Pronounced more or less as “Om Gung Guh-nuh-puh-tuh-YAY Nuh-muh-huh”.

The Five Sources of Pain, Part 2: Delineating the Kleshas

As stated in the last post, the five sources of pain are listed as Ignorance, Ego, Attachment, Repulsion, and Clinging to Life. Though existing as upwellings of a single disease, the five may be teased apart like the threads of a rope, thus weakening the whole. (Have you ever noticed that ropes burn better when separated enough to allow oxygen to move between the strands? No? Just me? Well, the simile stands even for people who haven’t burned as many things.)

Ignorance (avidya), being the root of all pain, is not merely the lack of knowledge of some particular fact or other. A person may be illiterate and less ignorant, in the Yogic sense, than a highly educated university professor; this is in no way a judgment on education, but to point out that it is not possible to attain to gnosis (jñāna or vidya) from gaining worldly, or wordy, knowledge. For many people, such knowledge can form a temporary barrier to gnosis, though wisdom gained can tip this balance in the other direction. Kleshic Ignorance is a fundamental misapprehension of the Nature of the Self, a failure to recognize who and what one’s own soul actually is. This is the closest thing to “original sin” or “fall from grace” there ever was, and we cannot know who or what is to blame anyway. As Lord Buddha made clear, to ask the question of how it came to be before we have attained freedom from the condition which keeps us from knowing is like the man struck by a poisoned arrow who refuses treatment until he knows who fired the arrow and why, who created the poison, etc. In short, don’t worry about it; get free, and then the speculative questions can be approached. Whether or not this Ignorance has always existed or was somehow added to us is not, therefore, a relevant question for now and must be set aside. What is sure is that it can be removed. We have this assurance by way of the example of the individuals who have transcended it and come to jñāna. While each such Master’s followers may make claims to uniqueness, as a rule they all tell their disciples something like, “If I can do it, so can you.” Accepting this idea is shradha, or faith, an essential trait for engaging in the practice. This particular faith overcomes ignorance, not by blinding us to any contradictory evidence (which is really a deepening of ignorance) but by opening us up to the possibility of deliverance. We can rightfully say that Ignorance is the one Klesha from which the others grow and which the others reinforce.

Ego (ahaṁkāra) is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Ignorance. The Sanskrit word ahaṁkāra can be translated as “I-maker” or “I-actor” suggesting that “ego” is really more of a process than an entity. Anyone who has studied Buddhism can see in this a clear parallel with the doctrine of anātman or “no-self”; our self-identity rests on a roiling ocean of experiences and mental events and as we dig into it we can watch pieces of it go floating off into nothingness like icebergs melting into the sea. Ego is therefore the process of identifying oneself with this, that, or the other — none of which is the genuine article. Generally, the more energy we put into the something, the more of our identity we draw from it. Consider that when we ask someone, “What are you?” we are given a career, a university degree, or a job title in response. We may also be told, “I am a father,” or “I am a Christian,” or “I am a film buff,” the like interpersonal roles, belief systems, hobbies, etc., but even these depend on how much time and energy the person puts into them. Few people, for example, identify themselves as comic book fans if they only pick up the odd graphic novel a few times a year, even if the description might still fit in terms of how much they enjoy or get out of the experience when it happens. Thus we find the source of many social phenomena such as “fandoms” which have arisen in a big way in the age of the Internet. This perfectly illustrates the painful influence of Ignorance: nothing about the process of self-identity is inherently harmful, but our ignorance of our true nature means that we reify those identities, letting our minds and senses of self crystallize in a configuration entirely based on those identities. As we will see in discussing the other Kleshas, we feel the need to protect our identities, often irrationally and viciously, because to let them fall apart is death.

Attachment (rāga) is the principle mechanism by which we seek to strengthen Ego and by which ego itself extends its reach. Attachment is often conflated with desire; while desire is part of Attachment, it is not the whole thing. Simple enjoyment of something good or pleasurable which comes our way is not the problem. The problem is how much “need” we feel for that object or experience, how much we think it defines us, how much of a sense of security we try to squeeze out of it, and how unwilling we are to let it go once it has served its purpose. All of the above applies not only to physical objects but to beliefs and ideas as well. More often than not, the ideas we hold dear say a lot more about ourselves than they do about the world to which we think they apply. Again, this is not a bad thing in itself, but such attachments do make it hard for us to re-evaluate our beliefs and assumptions when they begin to hold us back or push us into destructive behavior. If Ego is the fortress keep of the psyche, Attachment is the sum total of its fortifications and supplies which make us feel safe, comfortable, and secure locked away from real experience of the world-as-it-is.

Repulsion (dveṣa) or Revulsion is the other pole to Attachment, and the push-and-pull which they represent is calibrated to uphold the Ego regardless of how deranged it has become. Like Attachment, the problem is not that we avoid that which is harmful but that because of Ignorance we are unaware of what constitutes harm and because of Ego we have false ideas about who or what is being harmed. To continue the fortress analogy, Repulsion is our psychic military; from Repulsion come anger, aggression, defensiveness, and other habits of hostility. Just as Attachment also applies to ideas, so does Repulsion. The beliefs of others can offend us — that is to say, we respond to them as if they are attacks — to such a degree that it is as if an egoic immune response has triggered and a war begun against an invading force. But, of course, the invasion is usually an error of perception on our part rather than a genuine personal attack. Such is the messy interaction of the sources of pain. It’s worth noting in passing that our interpersonal prejudices, both positive and negative, are egoic Attachment and Repulsion in action; racism, for example, is Repulsion based in an overweening emphasis on the superiority of one’s own ethnicity, while those inversions of racism which attribute, say, innate mathematical ability to people from Asian countries represent Attachment focused on a limited sense of identity projected onto others.

Clinging to Life (abhiniveśa), otherwise formulated as fear of death, is the natural outcome of and reinforcement to the other four Kleshas. Where Attachment and Repulsion tend to be focused on specific objects of experience, Clinging to Life is a more free-floating anxiety, existential angst, unhealthy fear of mortality, and the like: basically, all of those patterns of thought and emotion which are rooted in egotism but whose tendrils wrap around the whole of life rather than stabbing straight into some thing in particular. Ultimately, it is the fear of dissolution, of lost identity, of oblivion. After all, this is what undergirds all of life’s anxiety and fear. A person fears being forgotten because this is a form of erasure from the only type of post mortem survival we’re taught to believe in by our materialist society; another is afraid of change because, whatever else they tell themselves, change reminds them that one day they will die; examples are endless.

All of these sources of pain may seem so natural to what it means to be a thinking, feeling, embodied being that the cause of dissolving them seems hopeless. Alternatively, one or another of the Kleshas may be such a strong obstruction that dissolving any or all of them itself feels undesirable. The anger of Repulsion, for example, may shore-up our self-identity as righteous, just, socially aware individuals such that it seems like personal weakness or moral failure to do away with it. For many of us, Ego and Clinging to Life are such strong presences that any weakening of the Kleshas as a collective seems like an existential threat — reducing the hold of any Klesha feels like a tearing-away of a piece of one’s own essence and, so, a move toward death.

Partly, the sense of the natural or inherent status of the Kleshas is a consequence of how deeply they have become rooted in any given individual’s consciousness. One of the great lessons of spiritual practice is simply the negative knowledge that, “I am not what I have habitually believed myself to be,” and it is this very negative knowledge which brings true freedom. However it must also be borne in mind, lest we allow ourselves to fall into the dualism, world-denial, or solipsism so common in spiritual circles throughout history, that even the Kleshas are themselves based in something basically good: Ignorance can’t exist without something real of which to be ignorant; Ego is an ersatz of a genuine Self (even if the nature of which cannot be put to words). Contemplation of what might be at the heart of any given Klesha is a useful exercise in and of itself.

To the end of contemplating the Kleshas and find more practical approaches to disentangling them, next time we will explore a model of the five elements and how they relate to one another. While this may seem like an aside, it is actually a necessary step in gaining a better understanding of how the Kleshas actually work in and on our minds. As an added bonus, this astrologically-based approach to the elements is applicable in understanding the planets and signs and in practical magic.

The Occult Rat-Race

Yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind. ~ Patanjali, Yoga Sutras I.2

I had a very good day, today. I spent it at work, at a job I love, surrounded by people I respect from all walks of life who form a community based around joy and the exercise of the mind. If you didn’t already know, I work in a tabletop gaming store, and for as “un-spiritual” as that may sound, it is at least constructive and brings happiness. And, best of all, not a single person with whom I interacted today—one of the biggest sale days of the year for us, so the store was a constant coming-and-going of people—there was not a single esotericist there to make the day tiresome.

As with any religion, one may lose faith in occultism, and that for a variety of reasons. One may, for instance, never apply oneself to the practices and disciplines, thus get none of the promised results, and blame the tradition instead of oneself. One may apply oneself fully to the advised disciplines and find that they do not live up to the promises—or else they give the desired results but those turn out to be far different than expected. Very commonly, loss of faith comes from some combination of these and another rather important factor: the community itself does not live up to its ideals and promises. For instance, I know people who have given themselves up entirely to atheism or nihilism because the religious communities in which they have tried to find homes were so hypocritical and full of hate, avarice, and the other regular vices that it made the whole endeavor eventually seem bankrupt.

I have duly and entirely lost my faith in occultism and, more to the point, in occultists. This has been a gradual process, not a drop off a cliff but a sloughing-off, at first uncomfortable, unpleasant, even painful, but eventually relieving. This has not come due to failure of the practice, either on my part or those of the methods themselves. It has in fact been the reverse: the more success I gain with the ritual magic of Tantra and the alchemy of Yoga, the less patience I can spare for counterfeits.

There is also the point of community to address. I know many excellent magicians and mystics. But they, too, have gotten or are rapidly getting to the point of seeing no profit in associating with the broad swath of occultism which exists in every city. Far better, they find, to keep to themselves, going about their daily lives rather innocuously, often not seeming like anyone out of the ordinary. “By their fruits you will know them,” though, so they will often find one another anyway, but it doesn’t need to be an active search.

It is true that a leading motive of spirituality is an effort to escape misery and find true happiness. This is an honest and reasonable motive. But it all too easily turns into the like of any other pursuit of happiness: social gamesmanship takes the fore as meaningless loyalties are tested among and by people who take themselves as undeservedly seriously as high school heartbreak; everyone places the weight of the world upon their own shoulders, despite a lack of meaningful action, because it makes them and their relationships appear as important as they feel; public declarations take the place of self-study. There is a parasitism among occultists who all feel entitled to access every piece of wisdom and knowledge without having to work for it or come by any of it through the honest experience of life. And, worse, there are the outsized egos who will gladly take advantage of those around them with something to give, a willingness to give it, and the well-meaning but naive belief that doing so will make any difference.

When writing about teachers, I quoted the phrase “occult rat-race” in reference to the usual, endless sorts of orders, lodges, covens, organizations, correspondence courses, and books. Almost as much as the people who engage with them, these things make up the run-of-the-mill of the esoteric world. Of course any and all of these may individually be helpful if they happen to be of better-than-average quality. The rat-race, however, is in being stuck to any of them. Attachment and repulsion have their play, perhaps more than usual when thoughts and self-identifiers of spirituality and special knowledge become involved. When active self-study and proper guidance are involved, this environment may turn the obstructions against one another and burn useless self-identity away. But under all other circumstances these conditions form the perfect hot house for the ego to grow and nescience to deepen; and when genuine magical or mystical methods are employed by or upon those who are not prepared for them, this situation becomes drastically worse, just as wires lacking insulation will start a fire or electrocute someone when a strong current is introduced.

The practice of Yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind so that Awareness, pure and uncolored, may be seen to as it is, self-effulgent and eternal. The body of occultism, with its myriad organizations, theatrics, dramatic people, meddlers, repetitive books, and endless doctrines—even or especially in the presence of genuine cleverness and ability—is nothing but the continuation and cultivation of more and more modifications of the mind, leading further and further from the very illumination so many occultists claim as their desire.

Simplify, simplify! Climb the wall and leave the maze! Though it will of the necessity of health be gradual, let fall away the unnecessary and do not worry after it once it is gone. It will not always be fun, and sometimes it will be quite painful, but what is mere ballast will go on its own if you let it.

He who is free from attachment and hatred, devoted to the good of all beings, fixed in knowledge, and steady shall attain to the supreme state. ~ Avadhuta Gita II.24

Puja of the Form of the Self

I am of the form
of Om Namah Shivaya!
My straight spine the haft
string and faultless
My head the spear
and the crescent Moon
Three tines, piercing Heaven,
the Lord’s divine Trident.
My legs the tri-leafed base
of perfect support.
Omkara surrounds,
vault of the night sky,
stang of the Trishul upholding.

I am of the form
of Om Namah Shivaya!
Dragon Seat and semen
the food and water offered
to the stillness of the Lord.
Heart the lamp and blood the fuel
the Lord’s Light cast back,
offering Him to Himself.
Prana itself the incense,
the only perfume fit for the Beloved,
lit at the Heart’s own flame.
My brain itself Ambrosia, Soma,
bloom-nectar arousing His smile.

I am of the form
of Om Namah Shivaya!
My soul clings to Her hem,
Shakti’s feet my refuge
Father and Mother embrace
The child held safe and vibrant
Watching as radiant cascades
of Maya and Lila gambol and dance
Flowers waving in the soft breeze
of Mother’s tinkling laughter
Her bloody tongue lolling
as Mother and Father enjoy
the child’s innocent garden play.

On Finding a True Teacher

I’ve recently been undergoing a significant disillusionment with the whole occult and esoteric community. I would not say that I’ve been suffering it, as all told it has lifted great weight from my shoulders and revealed a lot of what is and is not worth my time and energy. I hasten to add that it is not with esoteric spirituality—nor with magic, etc.—that I have made a break, but with the people and organizations who have decided that they speak for it. Sadhana, practice, is the thing, and all the metaphysical philosophizing, lodge ritual, seminars, guided visualizations, and shared-around ordinations and consecrations in the world cannot help you if you aren’t willing to put in the work on your own.

It may seem odd, therefore, that I’m spilling more ink here on teachers. In Western ceremonial magic, conjure, and other forms of sorcery, teachers may be helpful but are not necessary if you’ve got access to books and other materials. Mysticism, however, irreducibly requires a mentor who has gone before you. A lot of people today really hate hearing this, but it’s no less true for that. Moreover, some modalities do require an initiation of some sort, a sharing of lineage and force, to really enter into the stream. For example, you can get something out of Tantric ritual and mantra practice just by following directions from a good book, but certain depths will be out of your reach without Guru’s grace. You don’t have to like it, and you may choose to push against the point, but that’s the way things are. It’s an experience I’ve shared with many others that as soon as one realizes this fact, a sort of despair takes hold. One may then start to chase down every inviting avenue trying to find a teacher, or else one may give up entirely thinking that the chances are just too slim to find a reliable teacher or proper lineage in this age. Or, like me, you may ping-pong between these two extremes on what seems a daily basis; the once-inviting avenues of the search reveal themselves to be blind alleys, so despair descends, only to give way to a flurry of web searching, correspondence courses, and temple visits. Wash, rinse, repeat.

And, boy, are there a lot of blind alleys masquerading as yellow brick roads. Herein lies the root of my increasing lack of interest in the many teachers, organizations, discussion groups, and such: most of them are more or less harmless enthusiastic amateurs who, like amateurs in any field, desperately want to share the world which has opened up to them with others of like mind, but enough of them are some combination of tigers waiting to pounce or, maybe worse, the sincerely deluded. This latter category is the hardest to deal with because they so often look like the real deal, but an observer can watch as their peccadillos expand to engulf them and their followers as their pain-bringing obstructions grow. I have recently watched this occur with an occult writer and teacher of some note, and not without some degree of sadness on my part as I watch his following build. This, indeed, went a long way toward precipitating my present distance from the occult world; conversation about it brought a friend of mine to suggest this very blog entry.

There’s no bullet-pointed list of specific traits to look for in a real Guru, initiator, guide, or mentor because there’s no one way of “being enlightened”, no one-size-fits-all way of teaching, and no perfect human being. A good rule, however, goes back to the last paragraph. Everyone who is still embodied will carry with them some conditioning; that’s what having a brain is all about. A genuine Guru, one who has walked far along the Way, will know this and acknowledge it. They will therefore also know their own quirks well enough to mostly keep them out of the way. They will not permit mere conditioned preferences and prejudices to negatively impact the sadhana of their students. This is one of several big reasons, but among the biggest, why the majority of even the most sincere spiritual practitioners just aren’t teacher material. (This, by the way, includes me.)

It is entirely possible for a spiritual teacher to, for example, have political opinions, and it is possible for his or her students to agree or disagree with those opinions without the Guru-sishya relationship being in the slightest way disrupted. It all depends on the good faith of both sides. There is no avoiding problems, however, when said teacher tries to enforce their politics as part of their spiritual teaching or make their spiritual teaching a mere appendage of their politics—a topic about which I’ve written before, though I would have been a bit more forceful about it had I known then what I know now. This is just one example of how a teacher’s lack of self-knowledge and self-control can disqualify them. Greed, power-hungriness, egotism, and a host of other issues can arise with the unqualified. Again, it isn’t as if a true Guru will entirely lack these altogether human traits, but he or she will know about themunderstand them, and, most important of all, be able to control them through this self-knowledge and perspective. As a fellow-Nath once put it, we don’t seek perfection but excellence; perfection implies a flattening-out, while excellence enjoys the best of texture. As long as the Guru has a body and brain, just like the rest of us, the knots and pain-bringing obstructions are there; what distinguishes the Guru in this vein is that he knows them inside and out.

When one does not have this depth of self-knowledge but tries to take up the mantle of teacher and/or initiator, the pain-bearing obstructions (ignorance, egotism, attachment, repulsion, and fear of death) will tend to grow in whichever directions present the least resistance. If allowed to continue unchecked, those barriers which exist in other directions will be absorbed and used by the kleshas to continue to grow like tumors siphoning the body’s nutrients for their own use. I don’t mean to speak, here, like a Yogic physician who is expert in this process, but I have watched it happen more than once from several angles.

Be on the lookout, therefore, for hypocrisy. Even minor examples of “do as I say, not as I do” implies an underlying problem which will likely burst forth sooner or later, especially when surrounded by sycophants. Use some subtlety here. It is possible for a teacher to assign a practice to one student that he or she does not assign to all students equally, even a practice which the teacher him- or herself does not generally use. This is simply because a good teacher will dynamically respond to the different needs of people who are in different places, with different karmas and conditioning. This is fundamentally, and recognizably, different from passive-aggression and petty double standards which conflate authority with authoritativeness.

All of this certainly plays into the old standard “by their fruits you shall know them” and this is certainly a good rule. Again, some subtlety of observation is necessary, but if a person claims powers which are not supported by the reality of their life, do you really want to learn their magic? If they speak about refinement and transcendence which is nowhere evident in their behavior, what do they have to teach you of mysticism?

Ultimately, a good teacher is found by a good student, and vice versa. Tantric sources suggest a karmic necessity to the arrangement, and I think that this is true. But even if you find that hard to accept, there does seem to be a sort of magnetism which brings a ripe student and their teacher together. Much Yoga literature therefore focuses on the qualifications of the student rather than those of the teacher. Some have observed that this seems like an imbalanced arrangement, putting the vulnerable seeker at the disposal of any number of people of bad faith. In truth, it puts the seeker very much in the driver’s seat. If a teacher is actively recruiting students, that’s a strike against already. Making oneself available is very far from putting up a billboard. Some fanfares are earned, and some merely purchased. To tell the difference often takes discrimination. Let the seeker, therefore, develop a practice which builds and encourages intelligence. Concentration and meditation, the conscious direction of one’s own mind, are a good place to start, as is a devotional practice to one’s chosen deity which tends to bring to the mind and perceptions a new level of clarity.

Some books which have been helpful for me in these reflections:

  • Bhagavad Gita, because Krishna is a good model of a Guru; he does not hide or deny his quirks but uses them to bring dynamism and personality to his teaching;
  • In Days of Great Peace by Mouni Sadhu, as a sympathetic telling of the author’s journey through the “occult rat-race” to his own Guru;
  • Concentration by Mouni Sadhu, for presenting a series of exercises leading to lucidity of the mind;
  • Initiation Into Hermetics by Franz Bardon, for giving a self-paced and well-rounded practical education in both magic and mysticism which puts one in good stead to find a spiritual home;
  • Guru Gita, as devotion to the Divine Guru within and without is a proven method of ripening to meet the human Guru;
  • Yoga Sutras by Sage Patanjali, for lucidly expressing the aims and core methods of practice leading to an awakened intellect;
  • The Phantastikos by Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (Dadaji), a lucid and non-dogmatic account of the searches and results of a Tantric Guru’s own journey, prefaced by my own Guru Sri Gurudev Kapilnath telling of how he came to Dadaji’s tutelage (two for one special!).

I wish every reader here the absolute best, whether you are looking to enter the stream of mysticism or searching for the sorcery to enhance your life here and now. Either way, choose your associations carefully, practice with sincerity, watch for results, and keep your wits about you.