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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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 1: Concentration & Meditation

For as long as we are incarnate, our minds and bodies are linked together in unfathomable ways, very deeply. We can safely give up any notions of mind-body duality; they are not two. It can help to think of what Bardon calls “body, soul, and spirit” or “physical body, astral body, and mental body” as layers of a single self. As Craig Williams​ often puts it, the body is the revelation of the soul and the soul is the revelation of the body. In terms of Yoga, these constitute the physical, mental, and intellectual sheaths (with the “astral matrix” filling the role of the yogic pranic sheath). This all can be helpful terminology, as long as we don’t forget that we are using what Yoga and Tantra literature sometimes call “twilight language”, or the language of the mystical poet: such terms are useful tools for reflection but can become too-literal blockages, too.

This is all relevant to the Step 1 mental exercises of IIH in that we may gain insight into how our minds work by observing our thoughts from this perspective. First of all, what your body does, your mind does, and vice versa. This is pretty obvious to everyone: mental stress causes muscle tension and impedes organ function, while physical stresses such as illness cause mental stress and fatigue, etc. But it goes down to the details, too. Though Bardon gives short shrift to breathing exercises, he does acknowledge that the breath impacts the mind. Thus, rhythmic breathing from the diaphragm will very quickly relax the mind, and a relaxed mind will cause the body to tend toward this sort of breathing.

You can go into greater detail, if it is helpful. I found through trial and error in my own meditation and magic career, for example, that all physical and mental symptoms of tooth-gritting force of will in concentration and meditation serve only as further obstacles and distractions. The goal with concentration and meditation—as, for example, the Step 1 mental exercises of Initiation Into Hermetics, as well as the later elemental concentration exercises—is for the effort to be a smooth one, for concentration and eventual contemplation to come naturally. Thus, any help to relax the body-mind complex can be good for these early stages.

When I was first going through these Step 1 exercises years ago, I admit that the mental exercises were by far the hardest on me. Though I had been practicing meditation for a while prior, this was the first time anyone had set up clear goal posts for me. Suddenly having those made the work seem more productive, as every advance seemed like an advance TOWARD something rather than just “into the wilderness” (a sort of advance which also has its purpose, but which is really more appropriate for more advanced practice than this Step 1 work). Having these clear goals, however, also made me feel tense because every day I did not see any clear progress, I felt defeated and frustrated. And that, of course, carried over into the exercises themselves.

It’s interesting to look back from where I am now. Though hardly the “enlightened master” I hoped I’d be by this point in my life, I can point to some definite progress, and a big part of that progress is relaxing into any form of concentration. To that end, I’d like to offer some of the little tricks which helped me in this.

  • As weird as it may sound, relax your eyes. When concentrating, you will likely find that the muscles which control your eyes’ movement and which protect your optic nerves will go tense as if you are staring hard at something even with your eyes closed. Just relax them. You can practice by simply looking around the room with your eyes unfocused; everything should look a little bit blurry, but you’ll have a much wider arc of vision than usual. Stretch your arms out to your sides (depending on your peripheral vision, you may have to move your fingertips slightly forward) and try to look straight ahead in such a way that you can see not only what is right in front of you but also your fingertips out at your sides. If what is in front of you fades out, you’re focusing too much on your peripheral vision, and vice versa. Instead, relax your gaze and take it all in passively. When you sit to meditate, do the same with your eyes closed. If you catch yourself during an exercise tensing your eyes up, you now know what it feels like to relax them. This will help, guaranteed.
  • Breath evenly and from your diaphragm. With practice, you can even make this your default way of breathing, and will find yourself much calmer throughout the day for it, as well as better able to keep up during cardio work-outs. For most of us, breathing is itself a stress-inducing action, right from infancy, because our modern medical practices do not give the newborn’s lungs time to acclimate to their new environment before cutting the umbilical cord and setting us on our way, so it can take time to reverse this habit. But it can be done. Start with your concentration and meditation sessions, or any time you need to de-stress a bit during the day. Just push your belly out and let the vacuum of your lungs do the work; don’t worry about pulling air in. To breath out, just relax your belly and gravity will do the work of pushing air out as your diaphragm relaxes.
  • Maybe the least obvious but most important tip: DON’T WORK AT CONCENTRATING! This may sound counter-intuitive, given that the entire goal of a concentration exercise is to force the mind to do something. But the more you try to force your mind into a shape it isn’t accustomed to taking, the more it’ll fight back with all manner of distractions. Instead of conquering it through force, your goal is to “infiltrate” your own thoughts in order to gradually reshape them according to a firm but patient will. The first mental exercise of Step 1 is, in fact, based on this very premise: don’t go right in trying to concentrate, but instead go in to observe. The goal of the first of three Step 1 mental exercises is just to watch your thoughts for a while without getting caught-up by any of them. To do this, you must remain relaxed, because any tension is itself representative of a thought which has carried you away. Even once you have achieved the goal of ten minutes with this exercises and moved on to the next two, I suggest you always begin any session of concentration or meditation of any sort with a solid five to ten minutes of what Bardon calls “thought control”, which is really more like “awareness of thought”, this very relaxed observation of the processes of the mind. Not only does this make concentration itself much easier and more natural, but it also aids in the Step 1 astral exercise of detailed introspection, and many other later efforts besides. Once you get to the concentration exercises themselves, you will find that the same sort of relaxed awareness developed here will be applicable when maintaining awareness of only one object, or of none, and the mind will have been conditions to comply through gentle effort rather than through misguided heroism.

I hope that anyone trying to make real progress in Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics—or in meditation in general—will find this discussion helpful. Blessings in the work!

[All entries in this series may be found indexed in the Introduction.]

Re-Initiation Into Hermetics — Introduction

Years and years ago, I undertook the practice of Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics (IIH for short). For those not familiar, you may find my introduction to that book here: Franz Bardon’s Hermetic Yoga — Part 1: Initiation Into Hermetics. That practice changed me in uncountable ways and certainly brought me to where I am today. I cannot thank the Magus Franz Bardon enough for all of his help along the way.

I probably get more questions about Bardon and his books than about anything else I write about on this blog. (I’m sorry that I’m so bad at maintaining correspondence, by the way.) As such, alongside my Tantra practice, I have decided to revisit the exercises of IIH from the very beginning as a sort of refresher course, but also to get greater perspective of the progress I have made and exactly how magical and spiritual practice has changed me. I thought that it may be fun, also, to write some pieces along the way containing some of the insights I gain as I go, especially where they could be helpful for someone else.

So here it is, a second series which will hopefully run right alongside my Tantra 101 series (which I am still working on, don’t worry). Those of you who are practicing the Bardon system and would like for me to address specific issues or questions, feel free to leave comments. I will do my best to work them all in. Thanks everybody for reading, and blessings in the work!

Index of Series Posts

Part 1: Concentration & Meditation

Part 2: Patience, Introspection, & Disease

Tantra 101: Introduction

My old friend Lupa has an ongoing series at her own blog entitled Totemism 201, in which she seeks to help fellow non-Native “totemists” to move beyond the shallow and selfish model found in most popular New Age and Neo-Pagan sources on the topic. Her format has inspired me to undertake such a series myself on the topic of Tantra and Yoga. It would be far more presumptuous of me to call mine “201”, however, than it is for Lupa to use such a designation, so I’ll start with 101.

It’s actually quite pragmatic to start with 101, anyway, as there seems to me to be far more dangerous misconceptions about Tantra and Yoga than about many—perhaps all—other esoteric topics. While it would be impossible for me to clear all of them up, let alone to re-educate the numerous people who are misinformed or even willfully ignorant, I’d like to at least be able to give the sincerely interested a few good places to start exploring and a source for “unlearning” a lot of the problematic false knowledge.

I should also make clear that there are innumerable forms of Tantra based in Saivism and Saktism (not to mention the Buddhist and Jain varieties). There are points of commonality among them all, so certain general ideas and techniques can be discussed, but it is important for me to say that all of the technical details and modalities which I introduce are from my own background.

No blog post, book, weekend “intensive”, or really anything else, can take the place of a genuine Guru. As such, only those practices which can serve prior to the tutelage of such an initiating Mentor can usefully be included.

With all of that said, I hope that you find this series helpful. As usual with this blog, I will update irregularly, but will try to do so more frequently. You can find each article in order linked in the Table of Contents page.

Jai Siva-Sakti!