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.

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Disloyal Mind

Sometimes
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)

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)

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.]