Of the Limitlessness of Magic

There is an epidemic: magicians who don’t believe in magic. This takes many forms, from Western ritualists who don’t understand even the rudiments of astrology upon which most Western ritual magic is founded to activists who think that magic is just performance art, from witches who think it’s a fashion statement to Crowley fans who think it’s all psychoanalysis with fancy costumes—it’s a plague of missing the point. For the most part, I don’t care. People will do what they want to do, and usually do what makes them feel good regardless of how much good it actually does. Those who crave something deeper, however, will often find themselves stuck in these whirlpools of occult stagnation simply because that’s how they’ve been taught and don’t know of alternatives. I’ve seen too many promising students simply retreat back to normality because nothing they’d read or been given worked.

Even worse, the occult world is filled to overflowing with well-educated, intellectual, pop culturally aware magicians with perfectly acceptable political views—in short, utterly respectable people who are more concerned with looking respectable than they are with challenging themselves or the boundaries of the structures around them. Prioritizing social acceptability and cultural relevance over looking into dark corners and knowing wonders does not an esoteric adventurer make.

I normally do not discuss my own experiences with these things in public, and very rarely even in private. I take that tired old “To Keep Silent” thing pretty seriously, besides which it generally does no good for anybody to talk details. I’m momentarily breaking that rule, however, because I want to remind you that weird things happen. This isn’t the most impressive such tale, nor is it presented as evidence or proof of anything; it is an anecdote intended to illustrate that while these practices may be primarily mental in nature, the power unleashed thereby is not therefore all in our heads.

Years ago, I purchased a sword to use in my magical practice. I was doing some work at the time as a diviner and healer, and so needed to have my magical toolkit as full as possible for any eventuality and had to replace my last sword for an assortment of reasons. I went looking with certain criteria in mind: it had to be simple in design, full tang, balanced enough not to be awkward in my hand, and hypothetically usable as an actual weapon. The one I purchased was very blunt-edged, but able to be sharpened. I was alright with that at the time because I didn’t want my cat hurting herself on it in my one-room living arrangement.

I had been working through the evocation practices of Franz Bardon’s Practice of Magical Evocation at the same time and was at the point of going through the elemental realms and making allies in each of them, evoking said allies to visible appearance one at a time to fully integrate the forces of the elements on every level. I decided then to use the opportunity of evoking a particular elemental lord with whom I had made contact for the consecration of my new sword. The ritual went particularly well, lasting no more than an hour; I carried out my evocation according to my usual rubric and, having place the sword in the area of manifestation in advance, requested that great spirit to “bless and empower the sword in the name of the Most High and Most Inward God that it may serve me in all operations of magic henceforth”, etc. So far, so good.

Having concluded the operation, I ensured that the spirit had returned from whence I had invited him, closed the temple down and took a few minutes of rest before packing everything away inside my altar cabinet. As I took up the sword to return it to its leather scabbard for storage, I noticed that something had changed. Most immediately, it felt lighter in my hand. This being a purely subjective thing, I assumed that it was just my brain responding to the preceding ritual action but then, as I looked at the blade to guide it home, I noticed something a touch more dramatic: it was no longer blunt!

As the sword had never left the corner in which I stored my altar and magical supplies in my loft room, I was left to understand that the edge of my sword had been sharpened at some time during the ritual of evocation. 

Once again, I do not offer this anecdote as proof, for no anecdote can be proof to another of anything and to the individual supplying the story only insofar as it proves that an experience was had. I supply it, however, as an example, however minor, that the forces we work with in spiritual practice of any sort (magical, theurgic, alchemical, meditative, or whatever) are not mere psychological complexes with no relation beyond symbolic with the world around us. The psychological aspects of these forces do exist, and are generally those with which we have the most direct relationships; if, however, we take seriously the fundamental esoteric doctrine that we are all integrated, even if unconsciously, with the Totality, it must be that these points of psychological connection are just our first-line interfaces with a Reality able to reveal so much more of itself to us as we make ourselves open to it and are gifted with its revelations. Just as many traditions hold that gods are showings-forth of the All-in-One through a variety of faces, the spirits with which a magician forms relationships and the individual consciousness of the magician himself are also such masks. If I and every single manifest person or thing with which I interact are all Self-revelations of the deepest living Truth, how can I doubt that wonders occur?

The Heart of Freedom, part 3: What We Give Back

If we want to be healthy and blessed with long life we must become like Jupiter—generous, joyful, and wise. Generosity is about overcoming our habituated self-centeredness, our sense of limitation, of fear of the future, of not having or being enough. […] In this we imitate the Masters we wish to be like, and in doing so, fulfill the function of Assumption of the Godform, not as an image, but as a real, living, breathing act.

~ Mark Stavish, Child of the Sun: Psychic & Physical Rejuvenation in Alchemy and Qabalah

Just as there are some who enter the spiritual Path wondering, “What’s in it for me?,” there are always those who wonder, too, “How do I use this to save the world?” I’m not going to sugarcoat this point, because it deserves being made forcefully and forthrightly: You don’t. It is not your job to save the world (and from what?), but it is your job to be available to the people of the world and to be of benefit to them.

Śri Ramana Maharshi was fond of using parables from everyday life to illustrate the subtler points of sādhana, of those practices which clear the obstacles between ourselves and wakefulness. One that he employed on many recorded occasions concerned our responsibilities to the world as they relate to our spiritual practice: Two men board a train at the same station and are headed to the same station in another town. One of these men holds his bags for the entire trip, worrying over them and straining to ensure that they reach his destination with him. The other man sets his bags down in the appropriate holding compartment and leisurely watches the landscape go by as the train speeds along.

It is sometimes easy to misunderstand Ramana’s teachings, seeing as how most of us in the modern West lack the context of a Hindu upbringing with its attendant (at least passing) knowledge of the need for preparatory religious practices and philosophical study to understand and properly apply many of the sādhanas discussed so casually in his terse discourses. That being so, it may seem as if the parable is telling us to forego our responsibilities, relaxing and pretending that they aren’t there at all. In fact, he has given us a sophisticated diagnosis of our problem and prescribed a treatment for it all in one tight package.

We have a tendency to want, on some level, to carry our baggage endlessly. We almost revel in our emotional problems, showing them forth as what makes us unique and special, demanding that they be accommodated and sheltered rather than plucking them out by the root. In any case, we fret over them, and fretting just makes them bigger and heavier—if not actually, then at least in our perception. If, however, we set them down and allow the process of our spiritual practice to move us along, everything that we need to reach the end with us will come along for the ride. In short, it is all too easy to put our effort into the wrong thing out of fear and anxiety, but that only increases the fear and anxiety.

Tooth-gritting heroics rarely do much long-term good. Muscle-flexing can create a bit of breathing space, but as soon as your arms tire out, you’ll find yourself quickly surrounded. Gnosis is not about what you learn as much as what you unlearn, what you clear away so that Reality can shine forth. Very often, then, it means knowing when you can help and when you cannot, when effort will be useful and when it will be wasteful. In the Yogi-sampradāyas of Patānjali, of the Siddhas, and the Nāthas, we recognize five kleshas, five afflictions which, like knots, bind us up. All five of them are obstacles here.

Ego, attraction, and repulsion are the middle three afflictions. Ego, in this context, is not merely the sense of “I am”, but the ongoing process of mistakenly identifying yourself with all manner of things which are not really you at all. Whenever someone asks what you do, and you immediately respond with, “I am a lawyer,” or “I am a construction worker,” or any similar formula, you are displaying ego in this sense. The same is true, though, if you say “I am a Catholic,” or “I am a Hindu,” or “I am a Republican,” or, well, you get the idea. These identities can be useful if we consciously wear them as the costumes they are, but we usually wear them in such a way that we forget who is wearing the costume and think that only the costume itself is the real person. This leads inexorably to attraction and repulsion, by which we say that one thing is good and another bad, one thing clean and another dirty, according to the expectations of the costume-identity rather than the individual wearing the costume. Now is not the time to get into the depths of nondualism, wherein nothing is inherently unclean (aghora), but it is enough to say that we might instead focus on the usefulness of a thing and forget about questions of inherent goodness. Might a thing be applied skillfully by us in order to enable our own awakening and the awakening of others? If so, we may call it provisionally useful and move on. If not—whether by the nature of the thing or by our own lack of skill—we may safely leave it aside for someone else to handle.

We might say that the final two kleshas, the first and the last in the usual order, are both root and fruit of the three above. Ignorance is the primal klesha, the one which gives rise to the other four, but ignorance is also reinforced by them. The final klesha is “clinging to life”, which may also be stated as “fear of death”. Clinging to life is the fruit of the preceding four, but it is also firm and strong enough to support them, thus bolstering their power. Ignorance contains the other four kleshas in seed form, as potential diseases, while clinging to life contains them as a plant must contain the genetic information which guides its growth and the nutrients which fuel it. (The observant may see a direct connection to the five elements in this discussion. Useful experiments may be performed along these lines, and I am writing a book about exactly this line of work.)

Now, here’s the kicker: The stronger the influence of any klesha upon me, the worse I will be at being of help to anybody else in any absolute, lasting sense. This is precisely why we cannot seem to shake our most fundamental problems in human society. We are always acting from within the kleshas. Look, for example, at how technology is increasingly concerned with “curing” death. You have Google and other firms dealing with artificial intelligence who have explicitly set for themselves the goal of digitizing “human consciousness” so that, after a person’s death, their personality can still be around in the form of a computer program. Within medicine, researchers are feverishly predicting the inevitability of bodily longevity by way of all manner of pills, injectables, and genome treatments. Rather than dealing with quality of life, the concern has shifted to quantity, as if a long life were inherently better or more meaningful than a short one packed with artistry. “Curing death” is of less inherent value than effective cancer treatments; when a person is dead, the quantity of their life is no longer a concern, while the quality of their life has enduring impact (whether or not one accepts survival of consciousness), but cancer reduces both quality and quantity of life. This is a very fundamental shift in focus deserving of our attention, but it also serves as an example of how the kleshas flavor our every pursuit.

Spiritual practice is no different in this way from any other human engagement. It is so common for egotism or greed (attraction) to drive our spirituality that whole books have been written about this topic alone—for instance, Chӧgyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. In Western alchemy, the term “puffer” has been applied to those who were more concerned with the gold which came out of the transmutation than with the transmutation itself. And then there are the megachurches, the Vatican’s thrones of gold, and the Prosperity Gospel salespeople… The list could continue endlessly, wrapping itself around the world just as it weaves its way throughout human culture in every geographical point through which it passes. The point is this:

Not everyone is destined to create a global organization which impacts the lives of thousands or millions through charity. Most of us will do far better in improving ourselves, awakening ourselves, so that we will do more good in our immediate community. Even if we could start those global organizations, they usually become corrupt very quickly once legally incorporated and flowing with funding. Movements become denatured or defunct once their founder retires or dies. You can’t save anyone else if you can’t save yourself. This is neither cold pragmatism nor bitter cynicism. When goodness flows, it flows through an individual, not through a legal abstraction or a mob. Whether or not the movement of goodness seems “fair” to you, it flows like water, and like water it needs to be pressurized through the plumbing of a single human being if it is to have enough force to accomplish anything. One of the main functions of spiritual practice is to first clean out one’s own plumbing and learn to properly maintaining it so that when the pressure does flow, we don’t suffer a blowout. The takeaway from all of this is to work on yourself, do what you can do within your own community—however you define that, though the more local the better—and don’t fret over what you can’t control. If the world is to get any healthier, that is how it will happen.

The Heart of Freedom, part 2: Spiritual Practice & Its Benefits

Being a magician is a stage in the process of developing spiritually. It is not the height of development; in fact, it is only a step in the first part of the range of real human development.

~ Draja Mickaharic, from Practice of Magic: An Introductory Guide to the Art

Discussing the “benefits” of spiritual practice is a difficult thing. For one thing, those benefits are often very slow in arising, and usually take a lot of time to stabilize once they have arisen. Backsliding is notoriously easy in esoteric practice just as in changing one’s diet or exercise routine. For another thing, though, we are perhaps too obsessed with benefits in the first place. Everybody comes in the door wanting to know, “Truth sounds nice, and all, but what’s in it for me?”

As Mark Stavish of the Institute for Hermetic Studies recently remarked in an online comment concerning what he tells his students upon entering the classroom, “You have no rights, only obligations. I am here to speak to you about your obligations for this class. If you want to talk about rights, then tell it to the mountain.” The same that Mr. Stavish says of his classroom may be said of life in general, and goes double for the life of the soul. With the popular imagination captured every few years by something like The Secret , the Prosperity Gospel, or whatever the current iteration of New Thought goes by, it is easy for us to forget that no millennia-old tradition of spiritual training out there has ever taught that God is a vending machine into which we can feed the printed paper of “good thoughts” and receive back the many material conditions we believe will make us at last content with our lot. Those who have assiduously applied the practices of magic and genuine prayer know that it is entirely possible to gain materially by the mental progress which comes from spiritual labor, but the sacrifices made to achieve these things rarely permit that they will even-out to as much money and stuff as could be had by just working with intelligence and vigor in a career field. In other words, don’t turn to magic to make you rich, though it certainly may help the well-off to get more or the poor to survive and may help both to feel more stable and confident with whatever their level of income may be.

But, some may ask, doesn’t spirituality bring peace and happiness of its own sort, even apart from stuff and things? Yes, of that there can be no doubt. Remember, though, from my last post that the three great accomplishments—the Mahā-Siddhis, if you will—of peace, freedom, and happiness are like all other “occult powers”: tools. Peace, freedom, and happiness are not themselves liberation, but they are the most powerful tools we humans can apply en route to liberation. Peace and the equanimity which it brings are our armor and shield, freedom the sword we use to cut asunder whatever is useless, distracting, or harmful, and happiness supplies us the verve with which we wade into the battle. We can unpack even further.

Peace is not merely calm. Calm is easy; it happens when one is able to gain a bit of mental distance from a situation, which often happens quite by accident. The brain will even create calm in the face of trauma; we call this “shock”, thus showing that calm alone is not always either good or pleasant. Peace must be deeper than calm. Peace comes not just when the water of the pond is still, but when the garbage has been dredged from the bottom and removed and the pollutants carefully sifted from the water itself. Then, when the water goes still, we have not just calm but peace. The ecosystem restored, everything returned to its nature, there can be genuine equanimity: everything is seen for what it is and may be treated accordingly. Trash is seen as trash and tossed aside, not out of malice but because it simply does not belong. Peace can thus be seen as the faculty of mauna—inner silence, being a mind both clean and still.

Freedom is not the same as license, at least not in the sense of following the whims of hedonistic impulses. It is not, therefore, immorality but a specific sort of amorality. Morality has a role to play: it allows for the survival of social units at every scale and the more or less smooth operation of the individual within those social units (household, family, clan, town, county, region, state, province, nation, etc.). According even to Śrī Dattatreya in the Avadhūta Gīta, the Yogi may follow social and religious convention for the sake of both avoiding unnecessary conflict and encouraging the people in pursuing their own purification through those practices. Rules of morality therefore do have a place in genuine spirituality, and that place needs to be acknowledged and respected—but the Yogi is himself not necessarily obligated to follow those rules beyond a certain point. Freedom therefore implies responsibility, but also the capacity of budhi—a discriminating intellect capable of sifting through the contents of experience and picking out the gems from the grit without the burden of prejudice. Freedom is the ability to strike away what is harmful or useless within one’s own life. It is emphatically not doing whatever one wants without any thought to the consequences to oneself and others, but knowledge of what is good beyond the need for rules based in the organic trans-dualistic (dvaitādvaita) experience of Reality.

Finally, happiness is the dynamo which powers forward progress. It allows us to turn inward without fear of what we may find, as well as to turn outward without fear of being made separate. Happiness arises from the certain knowledge that Reality is one perfect living organism (parapinda, in the twilight language of Yogi-Guru Gorkhnāth) and that no part of that organism is ever separated from It. There is no mortal sin, no damnation, no irreversible error in the spiritual body of God—and there is no conceivable “outside of God” to be banished to for any infraction. Happiness is not yet the perfect realization of Śiva, but the perfume of that flower which arises as we make our approach.

While Grace and Power flows through every channel of the Path of Return, impelling us forward from the depths of each soul, responsibility is still the name of the game. As Śri Dhruvanāth, my own honored teacher now beyond the limits of his body, once told me: “The Śakti will meet you halfway, but the impetus to transform comes from you.” While there is much to be gained on the Path, there is also much work to be done, so I think it more useful to approach from that angle. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, the question is not what my spiritual practice will do for me but what I will do for my spiritual practice. The rewards will rise as surely as the Sun, but running after them apart from the great Journey itself is a fool’s errand down many a mental blind alley and psychic cul-de-sac.

Disloyal Mind

my mind is disloyal
to Guru and guide
—never to my God,
with whom I am
on friendly terms
since years back,
first on terms of
Hi how are you
and now on terms of
When will you be home for dinner
—because the moment
you put a human face on it
it’s all
Hey that guy’s teaching something else
Something comfortable and easy
But my teacher gave me something
and said
Dig into this,
Mess with it,
Make it work
and part of me is offended
by the Hey this ain’t
warm and cozy and fun
This shit is work
But my friend God
comes in late for dinner again
and says past a mouthful of fruit
He’s right, you know,
Just doing what I told him
And now you’ve got to
Do what he says
So I sigh
Because God gives pretty good advice.

Bourgeois Yoga: To Become One with the Status Quo

“Goblins do less harm to us than generals;
Pixies plague us less than do the politicians;
Fairyland is much more happy than our society;
Musing can be more profitable than reading;
The oracle more truthful than the news media;
Nature has the facts, mankind the theories;
Nature keeps the world clean, and man pollutes.

~ “The Prophetikos” of Shri Gurudev Mahendranath

I have received some feedback from my article Radical Between Extremes, or Midnight Cemetery Puja which indicates that I was perhaps unclear as to my target. That is liable to happen when the twilight imagery of Yoga and Tantra become involved with a more concrete point of social concern. This miscommunication does at least give me the opportunity to make a certain criticism more barbed; though I wish it to be swallowed, I do not want it to go down so easily that we forget we had to swallow anything at all.

Since the 19th century in the West, magic and mysticism have at least popularly become the purview of what some schools of socio-politcal thought call the bourgeoisie. That is to say not only that it has become a thoroughly middle class phenomenon, but that—as with all things commodified for the entertainment of the middle class—it has become safe. In traditional cultures, the shaman and the sorcerer are not people that one approaches lightly, and even the shaman and sorcerer themselves do not approach their vocation the same way we might take a job working in Accounts Receivable. It is a true vocation, a calling, but it is just as appropriate to call it an evocation—a calling out of many social norms, of a central place within a protective community, of not just the expectations but also the protections of a regular member of society. The Yogi, the magician, the shaman, the witch, are weird and maybe a little crazy, certainly either intimidating or discomfiting. Even today, the Vodou houngan, mambo, and bokor or, in a less organized setting, the hoodoo root doctor are not people to be trifled with. A Vodoun may know a bokor pretty well, even be close friends, but when the bokor is acting in his office, he is in that way and for that time set apart somewhat so that he may do his job. And his job is a fearful one. Likewise the Yogi: though he  may not outwardly renounce society, he will at least force some space between himself and his community, making an inner renunciation which carries more weight anyway.

I hope I should not even have to make an especially direct remark about the phenomenon of the modern “yoga school” or “tantra workshop”, at this point, but if I need to be more clear: I have met precious few urban or suburban yogis, magicians, and shamans who had done more to earn the title than take a correspondence course, join an order, or engage in a class or workshop. Little to no personal sacrifice is made and, as a result, none of the feral nature of the witch or the acid of the Tantrika has awakened within them. Such a wild one is not therefore a thoroughgoing iconoclast, as if smashing imagery for its own sake were ever more than petulant, but is rather wise to the inner nature of the images.

I do not mean this as a discouragement, for as much as it may seem like an insult. It’s just that a disease cannot be treated until it has been diagnosed, and sometimes the diagnosis can feel as harsh as the symptoms themselves. It may seem unfair that many are called but few are chosen until you realize that the calling is not up to you, but being worthy of the choice is.

When I spoke in that last post about movements, parties, voting, and politics, my intended audience was—as usual, on this blog—practitioners or at least students of the esoteric. Join your movements and march, join your parties and vote, there’s no harm in it if your cause is just and your intentions compassionate. But I speak as a mystic and magician to mystics and magicians—as well as poets and artists who, God knows, do some of the same work we do in their own way—when I say that any such support must arise organically from the wilderness of your own soul and not exclusively from the runaway locomotive of cultural pressure. We cannot be socially or even psychically safe and expect to make real progress in the exploration of Pati, pasa, and pasu (the Divine, the world, and the self). The Tantrika throws in his lot with the ghouls and goblins who haunt the woods and cemeteries, the witch tosses hers in with the horned (and horny) spirits who ride the dark undercurrents of Nature, and the artist drops his in with the poor, the diseased, and the disenfranchised—in all cases with the things that go bump in the night, the bogeymen in the closets and monsters under the bed of the comfortable, the wealthy, the righteous, the secure. And this must go so far beyond voting, attending a workshop, or marching at a rally. If the artist does not continue to create, her mission is stalled for both herself and the world; if the mystic should cease to seek kaivalya and the magician halt in reflecting holy gnosis, regardless of the dangers and insecurities which this must breed, it may as well be that the Sun and Moon both fail to rise, for the sweet nectar of immortality comes only to those who will touch tongue to the bitter poison of Saturn’s kingdom.

Tantra 101 — Part 1: Embodiment

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

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

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

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

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

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