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.

The Heart of Freedom, Part 1: The System

The three evil delusions of mankind; Nationalism, Racism and Religion which separate and divide the human race into conflicting segments. The three jewels of human life; Peace, Freedom and Happiness.

~ Sri Gurudev Mahendranath, The Exegetikos

A very close friend of mine asked me what may be the most pointed questions I’ve ever had directed at me about the purpose, even the usefulness, of spiritual practice. These are not easy questions to answer. I am open to sharing with people who are genuinely and sincerely interested (as I know he is), but I do not wish to come off as some sort of higher authority; I will not pretend that I know more than I do or have experienced more than I have, and I hope that my tone does not make it seem otherwise. But his questions were so direct that I couldn’t help but at least try to give the most thorough answers I could. And, of course, as soon as we had both parted for the night, I thought back on what I had said and how I had said it and started to fill in gaps in my head, clarifying and making more succinct. It seemed a perfect opportunity to do some writing aside from the book I’ve mostly been working on lately and, hopefully, it can be of help to somebody else.

The three questions he asked me, paraphrased, are:

  1. How can we be at all free within a system seemingly devised to keep us subjugated or else divest our humanity to do what it takes the climb the ladder of power?
  2. What have you gained from spiritual practice?
  3. How do you apply these things to the world?

Again, as you can see, these questions are direct and difficult. I will therefore take not less than three article posts here to give my best answers. They may not be to everybody’s liking, and I’m sure that they will be very incomplete, but at least here is what I have learned.

“Freedom isn’t free” was used during the George W. Bush administration here in the USA as a tagline for encouraging military action in the Middle East. Its questionable political motives aside, the phrase is broadly true. Freedom of any sort almost always requires the sacrifice of freedom of another sort; this is true of everybody, because a single lifetime is finite as are available resources.

Mokśa, liberation, is the ultimate freedom. No sacrifice is needed once this stage is reached, but for most of us that will be a long time in coming. Until then, we will have to give much up in the pursuit thereof. That should come as no surprise to anyone. As a magician friend likes to put it, “you wouldn’t expect to master a musical instrument by practicing ten minutes a day,” but that is exactly how many people approach magic, meditation, and other things spiritual expect. Some of them even get some noticeable results doing so because even five minutes of consistent practice a day is better than nothing, but even that is too little for mastery. And if a life of the soul is our actual aim, we can accept no less than a road to mastery.

In practical terms, that all means simplicity. In our society, almost nobody is able to live like a sadhu, nearly naked and wandering with only one or two possessions, because our society will not take care of such a person. In some other parts of the world, such as India, their value as living spiritual centers is recognized, but we cannot change an entire society’s values overnight so other ways must be found. Living inexpensively so that our spiritual lives may take center stage is a good start. Those of us without children may organize our lives so that we don’t need to work full time and may therefore spend more time studying and practicing. We may have to reduce time spent on hobbies. But we may also need to make hard decisions about our social lives. I do not mean to say that friends and family are necessarily obstacles, but often our obligations to social conventions hold us back and time spent in small talk is much as wasteful as time spent in front of a television.

On the level of politics, or of society, this also applies. We cannot help but to participate to some degree in a social and economic system which is to some degree corrupting. I say corrupting rather than corrupt because that is the more important point. The poet Edward Abbey had it that, “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.” This is true above a certain threshold of power, but it is also true below a certain threshold. That is to say, the want of power—of a sort we could call autonomy or self-determination—dehumanizes just as much as too much power, but in a very different way. When we feel weak, when we feel trapped, when we feel oppressed, we tend to revert to animal instincts out of a sense of survival. When we feel powerful, greater than the herd, we likewise revert to such instincts out of a genetic desire to maintain and grow that power. Whether racism, sexism, economic oppression, or—as counter-intuitive as it may seem—power itself, our minds are easily overcome by the portion of the systems we inhabit. This is always either a case of false self-identification or a symptom of it; we say “I am rich” or “I am poor” and we behave accordingly. The “victims” and the “perpetrators” are both enslaved to their own faulty identifications.

Now, it is common enough to see through some of these lies. Unfortunately, for every one we “see through”, we generally find our way to an opposite but equally problematic belief: ex-conservatives become arch-liberals, ex-occultists become “born-again” Christians, disillusioned Christians become militant atheists—we could continue all of this indefinitely. The point is this: it is an ongoing process, and we must not feel pride for any small progress made. For fear of seeming to lecture, I see this all the time. A person realizes that Political Candidate X is full of crap and assumes that Political Candidate Y must therefore hold the answers and then looks down on friends and family who refuse to see the light. Don’t pretend you haven’t done it; I have. But when you notice yourself doing it, realize the error. Never let yourself utter the word “sheeple” about your fellow men and women because we all have blind spots.

Freedom, genuine freedom, comes through effort and sacrifice. Absolutely nothing can be done to circumvent this. But, if you want the real truth, freedom comes from grace alone. Effort and sacrifice prepare us for grace, invite the activity of grace into our bodies, minds, and souls. Neither part of the equation is disposable, for grace is itself the cause of work and not the other way round.

Read Ernst Jünger’s The Forest Passage and look deeply into its message and you will see that freedom in this world is not a state but a process; Sri Gurudev Mahendranath further teaches that peace, freedom, and happiness do not equal liberation but are mutually interlocking techniques for achieving it. The systems of governance and economy which we create as human beings have their place; at their best, they help to stave off certain material problems to create space and supply resources for the subtler pursuits of art, science, and spirituality, but they easily become vectors for oppression no matter how well-intentioned. Even the “small government” so beloved of modern American conservatives is really just code for “government that does what we want and doesn’t do what we don’t want.” In other words: protecting our own interests while repressing those of those who disagree with us. Neither Right nor Left care overmuch for peace, freedom, and happiness because none of those three engines of liberation pays very well.

So the secret to freedom—today as ever—is just ora et labora, not a mere motto but a dictum, an order: Pray and Work! Do both. Make what sacrifices are necessary that both may blossom, releasing the subtle fragrances of peace, freedom, and happiness, because whatever you set aside to tend this garden is merely manure anyway and, in decaying in the absence of attention, will provide ample nutriment for the ultimate bloom of your own soul.

Book Review: Diaphany, vol. 1

Diaphany: A Journal & Nocturne, Volume One
Aaron Cheak, PhD; Sabrina Dalla Valle, MFA; Jennifer Zahrt, PhD (eds)
Rubedo Press

Aaron Cheak of Rubedo Press kindly sent me a PDF of Diaphany for the purpose of a review and after only the first few pages I knew that I would be ordering a hard copy at some point soon. Peer-reviewed philosophy journals tend, in my experience, to be two things first and foremost: somehow both dry and masturbatory at once. Diaphany is neither of these.

How did Rubedo Press and their body of academic contributors manage this? Why, they navigated through to the other side of that cramped but complex city in which many an intellectual finds himself lost years or decades after entering. No, not Pittsburgh, but good guess; I mean abstraction. Abstraction is a useful tool when trying to examine general principles, but it is altogether too easy to wander around in abstraction in search of some ever-evasive reductive truth. But the men and women who edited and contributed to Diaphany drew from that one thing which absolutely forbids abstraction: reality. I’ll let the website blurb briefly do the talking for me:

While strictly peer-reviewed, and while upholding the highest standards of academic research—including an unwavering fidelity to source materials—Diaphany is not a conventional academic journal. That is, Diaphany is not interested in so-called ‘objective’, ‘dispassionate’, or ‘impersonal’ inquiry for its own sake. Rather, Diaphany seeks philosophers tempered in the fires of genuine wisdom rather than mere information; scientists whose work emerges as much from a fervent, personal quest as it does from the perception of inexorable, impersonal realities; and artists of poēsis and presence who make the invisible visible and the eternal tangible according to a Kandinskian ‘inner necessity’ (innere Notwendigkeit).

The articles contained herein stand apart from one another in showcasing the unique experiences and thought processes of their respective authors (as well as any traditions from which those authors draw), never flattening them out into mere principles. The eminently Gebserian contribution by Aaron Cheak, “Rendering Darkness and Light Present” cannot be adequately compared to the Zen-inspired “Never Paint what Cannot be Painted” by Jason M Wirth, even less to “Exploring the Fractal Nature of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Cosmology” by Moselle N Singh—except to say that their central message is ever and always about what Craig Williams (author of Cave of the Numinous, which I previously reviewed here) calls “sacramental vision”, the increasingly direct perception of what is embodied and revealed within phenomena. Here is no Procrustean bed of esoteric religious traditions but an exploration of some of the ways in which experience of one way can deepen the experience of other ways. The diaphany of which the title speaks is therefore not an opaque vale which one must pull from the face of Isis, but a vale of gossamer which, if one looks upon it with intellectual intent and an open heart, is here opaque, there translucent, and there again entirely invisible, as the subtle currents of the atmosphere cause it to sway about in the light of the Moon. Each and ever written piece which makes up this volume shows off not the theoretical or merely metaphorical knowledge of this vale, but the loving approach to whatever of the face of Isis the Goddess Herself chooses to reveal. While the writing is therefore the thing, the supplementary or, perhaps, exemplary artwork included enhances rather than distracts from the overall impact of each article. In the piece aforementioned “Never Paint what Cannot be Painted”, for instance, the reader is treated to examples of precisely what can be painted and, blessedly, not a stroke more.

If modern philosophy is that guy at the dinner party who is somehow both boring to an almost catatonic degree and yet somehow so obnoxious as to be unavoidable, Aaron Cheak is the guy who gently directs you to the door and says, “C’mon, I know of a really laid-back after-hours place with good beer on tap and comfortable couches.” In volume one of Diaphany, he and his fellow editors and contributors kindly take us in their midst, pour us a relaxing cold one, and gather around with unforced smiles, and talk of what must be known if the world is to mean a damn.

Optimism & Hope: A Few Thoughts

My article on the myth of progress in spirituality which ran yesterday on People of Shambhala was, happily, met with mostly positive reception. A friendly acquaintance of mine did take me to task, however, on one point which he sees as a critical oversight: hope.

To summarize, the article itself is intended to briefly debunk the notion of a “new golden age” and its attendant assumptions of a global awakening or collective enlightenment. My friend took this to be a pessimistic position, and asked where hope comes into the picture. I will take my departure here, for this is an important topic.

The Buddha taught that hope is just a pleasant delusion. As with many of the Buddha’s teachings, its simplicity needs to be unpacked. Merriam-Webster defines hope thus: “to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true”. There are two clauses here, if either one of which is reduced we have lost hope. We must not only want a thing to be, we must also believe that it could be. Hope is a marriage of desire and belief. Those of us with much experience in mysticism or magic of any genuine sort must take both elements quite seriously and be on our guard about them.

Desire is powerful. There is nothing inherently wrong with desire, of course. Without it, we would not even have the basic impulse toward life, let alone spiritual life. If we had no desire at all, we could at best be automatons which continue to exist merely as a matter of course. But we live because we desire. We feel impelled to thus and so, whether it be food and drink to keep our bodies in working order, or the deepest states of experiential knowledge, desire is that impulse. Some may prefer to call it “will”, and that word certainly applies, but only once we have achieved a degree of conscious awareness and control over our desires. In whatever form, desire is there.

This very power to press us on toward liberation is what makes desire dangerous. In certain phases of development, often referred to as “involutionary”, our desires are entirely outside of our conscious control. They compel rather than impel. But once we have achieved a degree of self-awareness, which some identify as the point of taking human birth, we are on the upward swing of our parabola which is the “evolutionary” side of life. If we fail, however, to make the transition from involution to evolution, usually by a lack of the self-awareness from which self-control grows, our desires remain sub- or semi-conscious and will subvert our budding will at every turn.

The second variable in our definition of hope is belief. Belief, at base, is thinking and feeling that a thing is so. It is less basic than perception, but more basic than knowledge. Belief, we could say, is the mental lense through which perceptions must pass the reach the conscious mind. Like desire, belief is an essential tool for living life. We cannot go without expectations or presumptions of any sort. The trick is, again, to have the self-awareness to develop more accurate and robust belief systems which permit the freer flow of perceived or experienced data and, so, the more reliable formation of knowledge. (For simplicity, we can define knowledge as “justified belief”, or a belief (a) which one holds, (b) which one is justified by evidence or experience in holding, and (c) which corresponds more or less with reality.) From this brief exploration alone, it is plain to see how belief can be necessary, but also how it can go awry. When you thus put belief and desire together, the combination can be likened to an explosive strapped to one’s chest—and may well result in strapping explosives to one’s chest in a tragically more literal sense.

On a prosaic level, there is nothing at all wrong with hope. I have both the desire for, and belief in the strong possibility of, a visit with my family on Christmas day. My desire may be frustrated if the plan is short-circuited by unavoidable difficulties, or my beliefs may be disappointed if I believe Christmas to be on a Friday rather than a Thursday, but there’s certainly little enough harm in harboring that particular hope. Even if we outsized one or the other of these two elements, the whole structure might remain more or less harmless on its own. Perhaps I believe that extraterrestrials are waiting, cloaked of course, just outside of our atmosphere in order to save us from ourselves once things on Earth become too bad; I’m almost certainly wrong, of course, and not justified in this belief in any case, but it’s really not so big a problem if I am only lukewarm on the prospect (say, because I think we could still well save ourselves, so things may never need to get bad enough for my alien friends to intervene). Or, to reverse the equation, maybe I’m quite passionate about my love for the idea of extraterrestrials, but I’m not at all convinced that they exist or that we would ever come into contact with them if they did. This desire-without-belief could be as simple as Star Trek enthusiasm. Again, relatively harmless.

But if the scale of both the desire and the belief increase significantly, we have another story entirely. The Heaven’s Gate cult, famous for their mass suicide in 1997, is a good example of what might happen with an overabundance of hope in extraterrestrials, where human desire and belief came together with a punishing strength.

This all ties in very directly with notion of a “global consciousness shift”, “mass awakening”, or what have you. A desire that this should occur is fine; it just means that I’ve got human sympathy and would be quite happy to see everything suddenly improve across the globe. A belief that this is impending, however, is not justified. So it is a nice thought, and that is all. If I allow my belief in such a possibility to get beyond its own limitations, the whole structure becomes an obstacle for me. I may begin to focus more upon “the shift” than upon the dirty grind of increasing my self-awareness, improving my self-discipline, and generally using them to become a better, more illuminated individual.

If I feel any firm hope in anything at all, then, it is in the basic capacity of the individual: that one may learn and grow and become better, whether or not the whole mass of other individuals follow suit or not. My belief is justified, as I have experienced it happening in myself and seen it in some of those around me. And my desire is strong, because the whole world needs each one of us to take responsibility for it, for one another, and for ourselves.

Aleister Crowley: An Assessment

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Mahendranath, Sri Gurudev. (2002). The londinium temple strain. Available from

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

On Idolatry

As my friendships fan-out into more and varied religious and spiritual communities, I find myself running up against attitudes and beliefs which I had previously only known in the theory. In a conversation between two Jewish friends, I heard the most overt criticism of idolatry which I’ve ever encountered in person. In a later talk with one of them, I had described to me the experience of feeling “chilled” at seeing Buddhists bowing to statues of the Buddha. By the standards of my Jewish friends, then, I am an idolater.

Idolatry is of course condemned implicitly and explicitly throughout the rest of the Bible (Jewish and Christian inclusive), not to mention the Quran. I can even see where such a prohibition might come from: There is no doubt a great danger in reifying human ideas and ideals into absolutes to be worshiped apart from divine revelation. We bear witness today to the results of doing so in the most circular fashion: deifying human reason. But are all venerated images “idols” in this sense?

Assuming that the biblical law in question was genuinely revealed through prophecy, I think it vitally important to remember to whom a revelation is directed. In short, God knows His audience. If we look to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world of the day these laws were handed down, the situation was one of rampant idolatry not merely in the sense of using statues in religious worship, but one of deep ambiguity concerning humanity’s obligations to both man and divinity, the overvaluing of institutions, and the undervaluing of human life. It makes sense, under these conditions, to cut out as much gray area as possible. But this is bordering on attributing human motives to the Divinity, so I won’t travel any further in this direction.

But what of the more literal idolatry of religious images and statues? I find the accusation of idolatry to be contextual, and usually arbitrary. A Christian does not think that the sign of the cross hanging over the altar is an idol, nor will Catholic and Orthodox practitioners admit of the images of saints being called “idols”, when “icon” sounds so much nicer.

We can take this further. Is the Ka’ba an idol to which Muslims prostrate? It strikes me that a lump of meteoric rock inside a small cubic building is no less an idol than a Śivalingam in a cave, and may well be more so because its “idolatrous” nature goes ignored, unacknowledged, or denied, even by non-Muslims. The Ark of the Covenant is certainly an idol, for it was reverenced as having been inhered by the very Presence of Hashem.

I can predict the Abrahamic objection that the Ark cannot be an idol because, though built by human hands, it was built according to specifications revealed by God, so has divine imprimatur. But the images of Śiva, Ganeśa, and Vishnu — let alone Thoth, Hermes, Zeus, Odin, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Isis, and any number of other deities — are also revealed by those deities for the purpose of granting their worshipers some insight into their natures and how best to draw close to them. To claim that only my god’s revealed image, word, and aesthetic preference are valid religious expressions is merely to beg the questionn.

The monotheisms who condemn idolatry — while, as observed, practicing it themselves — usually claim the distinction of worshiping God directly, while idolaters worship the images. This is either ignorance, or deliberate obscurantism, depending upon the representative in the discussion. The uneducated individual has the defense of having read or heard the reality: that no worshiper of Vishnu, say, thinks himself to worship a mere image, but the Person who reveals himself through the image. Both the ignorant and the obscurantist may rejoin that the real difference, then, is the reality or supremacy of the god in question. But this is rhetoric, nothing more. Again, it begs the question it proposes to settle.

It is a truth unsettling to monotheists that monotheism is, strictly, not represented in the Abrahamic traditions as generally understood. All kinds of circumlocutions are invented to deal with the awkward facts of the angels, demons, hypostases, and mentions of other gods in their scriptures. These attempts not only tend to contradict the witness of the selfsame scriptures, they also unreasonably dismiss the experiences of worshipers in every other religious tradition in the world. I say “unreasonably” because the best they can ever do by way of justification is to cite their own claims in circular fashion; this is hardly satisfactory.

A separate but related truth is that religion can not exist without some form of idolatry — assuming, as we have this whole discussion through, that the biblical notion of idolatry can even be meaningfully applied. Moving forward, I propose some alternatives.

The word “monolatry” is already current; from here on, we may prefer it to “monotheism”, even if monolaters object. More, many of the religions condemned or dismissed as “idolatrous” do not actually worship idols. We might consider co-opting Christianity’s sanitized term “icon”, though we still don’t worship icons. Provisionally, I suggest “mesoeikonism” from the Greek words for “through” and “image”.

If the non-Abrahamic traditions, from Buddhism and Hinduism to Pagan revivals and First Nations/aboriginal traditions, are to be included in the global dialog, we must establish philosophical categories for the Abrahamic faiths just as their theologians (and the atheist philosophers who use their categories to this day) which adequately refocus the discussion, rather than confining ourselves to the categories handed to us by those who have spent centuries claiming a monopoly on philosophical adequacy. The beginning of this process has to be an aggressive correction of accidental misapprehensions and intentional misrepresentations.