Visions and Trances on the Path of Initiation (pt.1)

Qabalistic Map of Initiation

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

0) Introduction

In the Western tradition, the path of initiation (also known as “the Great Work”) is often laid out symbolically as “climbing” the Tree of Life from the bottom back to the top. While the map is not (nor can ever be) the territory, this map of the Tree of Life can be very useful to help elucidate the stages of the Path. The different “grades” of the Path are attributed to the different spheres or “Sephiroth” of the Tree of Life and can be characterized, to a certain extent, by the Qabalistic attributions of that Sephirah.

The Importance of Trances

If one is truly walking on the Path, one will not simply be able to pass simple tests of physical ability and mental knowledge. While these things are assuredly part of the Path and necessary thereto, real progress on this Path can be seen in changes of consciousness or the acquisition of new perspectives. Therefore, one of the indicators of having “achieved” a grade in an informal sense (i.e. outside of the rules of attaining a grade in any particular formal organization such as Golden Dawn or A∴A∴) is the attainment of a Vision and/or Trance characteristic of that grade. The importance of these Trances is stated clearly by Aleister Crowley:

“The word Trance implies a passing beyond: scil., the conditions which oppress. The whole and sole object of all true Magical and Mystical training is to become free from every kind of limitation… every Magical Operation soever is only complete when it is characterised (in one sense or another) by the occurrence of Trance.”
—Aleister Crowley, Little Essays Toward Truth, “Trance”

Definitions of Trance and Vision

Trance: A Trance is therefore an event within consciousness where one transcends the normal state of awareness, often in a “quasispasmodic” manner – that is, Trances are often (though not always) entered somewhat suddenly and the entering into Trance often comes at an unknown time. Samadhi can be seen as a special form or type of Trance characterized by “the supersession of dualistic human consciousness by the impersonal and monistic state” (Little Essays Toward Truth, “Trance”). A Trance is not necessarily in line with – and often in contradiction to – rational thinking: Samadhi is a characteristic example where whenever someone speaks about its nature they speak in paradox and contradiction. Trances are also characterized by their noetic nature – that is, they grant a felt sense of interior certainty regarding the truth of its content.

Vision: A Vision might be defined as a lesser form of Trance, where the acquisition of a new point-of-view or perspective does not necessarily require entering into a different state of consciousness, but it is still characterized by being noetic (i.e. granting a sense of interior certitude). Therefore, this distinguishes this definition of Vision from “astral visions,” which are not necessarily noetic in nature but may contain instances of Trance or Vision within them. It must also be stated that, although the term “Vision” implies sight, it really refers more to a particular type of experience or insight rather than being a series of visual sights, whether physical or mental (or astral). It is similar to the term “visualization” in occultism, which is often taken to mean focusing on visual images in the imagination but actually, in practice, refers to imagining things pertaining to all senses. Trances and Visions can therefore be distinguished from mere intellectual apprehension, for something can be intellectually grasped but not truly understood and felt as a certainty. To move beyond intellectual apprehension, one usually needs to have an experience for oneself that confirms the original idea but grants it a subject sense of truly “grasping” the idea or truly understanding it. As an illustration: a child might be told “you need to listen more carefully to others!” and grasp the idea intellectually, but not truly understand it. It requires the child having an experience – e.g., missing something important because of not listening carefully – to move from intellectual comprehension to real, certain understanding.

These definitions are not absolute, and there are blurry areas. People – including Crowley – often use these terms interchangeably. The main point is that Trance and Vision are states of consciousness that differ from normal, waking awareness and are characterized by (a) being noetic (felt sense of interior certitude) and (b) attaining a new point-of-view or perspective. This distinguishes them from both “astral visions” (both waking and dreaming) as well as from mere intellectual comprehension. The very fact of having attained a Trance or Vision inherently shows progress upon the Path insofar as they, by definition, imply a change within the individual – a shift of perspective or consciousness – whereas having an astral vision or intellectually grasping something do not necessarily imply any kind of real change in the individual at all.

We can now start to look at the various Trances or Visions in the context of the Tree of Life. Although the metaphor of “climbing the Tree of Life” implies that these steps are sequential, I believe that most of these Trances or Visions may happen at any time (depending on the right circumstances and intent), some may happen before others, some may even at the same time as others, and some may occur multiple times. There is no real test as to whether another person has attained any of these Trances or Visions, as tests must inherently be physical or intellectual, and I believe we all know that anyone can enter into a Yogic asana (physical) or say they are a Master (intellectual) but not actually be a Master at all. Therefore, this essay is intended to serve as a map for oneself – a kind of periodic table of Visions and Trances – both to show the possibilities of these Trances or Visions as well as to help understand various experiences that one may have had in the past or will have in the future (or perhaps presently if the reading of this essay somehow sends one spasmodically into a Trance – I wouldn’t exclude the possibility a priori!)

1) Malkuth (1°=10: Earth)

The Trance of Sorrow

The first Sephirah we encounter when “climbing the Tree of Life” is the 10th Sephirah that is called “Malkuth” (literally, “Kingdom”). We may attribute the Trance of Sorrow to Malkuth. The Trance of Sorrow may be defined as the Trance wherein one perceives that any and every endeavor, accomplishment, joy, connection, et cetera are ultimately insubstantial and will therefore eventually dissolve or end; essentially the Trance of Sorrow is where one realizes that nothing whatsoever lasts.

We may understand “Sorrow” as being a translation the Buddhist term dukkha, which is often translated as “suffering” (or “sorrow,” “misery,” “discontent,” “stress,” “dissatisfaction,” “anxiety,” etc.). In this way, the Trance of Sorrow represents an experiential understanding and appreciation of the First Noble Truth, which can be stated in many ways but ultimately means that “All things contain or are subject to suffering.”

The Trance of Sorrow helps to illustrate two points mentioned previously. Firstly, the “Trance of Sorrow” is called such by Crowley throughout his works, yet it is called the “Vision of Sorrow” in 777 and the “Vision of Universal Sorrow” elsewhere. This illustrates the point that “Trance” and “Vision” are terms that are often used interchangeably: one should not get too caught up in the words. Secondly, the Trance of Sorrow is a good example of how Trance is different from mere intellectual comprehension. One may intellectually grasp what has been said above – one may have previously encountered the First Noble Truth of Buddhism and grasped the idea being conveyed – yet the Trance of Sorrow goes beyond mere comprehension to a felt sense at the core of one’s being. The Trance involves an encompassing and even overwhelming sense of sorrow, dread, and even hopelessness. Although one can reach the Trance through intellectual contemplation, the Trance itself shows when this felt sense of certitude kicks in and one truly experiences the idea not merely as an idea but as an inescapable truth. A certain poetic explanation of this state can be found in Crowley’s “One Star in Sight” which begins with the lines, “Thy feet in mire, thine head in murk, / O man, how piteous thy plight, / The doubts that daunt, the ills that irk, / Thou hast nor wit nor will to fight— / How hope in heart, or worth in work? / No star in sight!”

To go further into the nature of the Trance of Sorrow: Nothing whatsoever lasts. You will inevitably die. Your family will die, your loved ones will die, your friends will die, your enemies will die, and all the people you’ve never known will all die: everyone will die. Every place you have been will change and pass away. The cycle of Life never stops; the Wheel of Samsara will never stop turning. Everything you know will eventually transform and perish.  The greatest joy and happiness you ever will achieve will eventually pass. No food, drink, idea, love, or anything else will ever truly satisfy you. Everything that you are striving for – all of your hopes, goals, and ambitions – will either remain unaccomplished or will be accomplished but will not last for long. No job lasts forever, no art piece lasts forever, no political change lasts forever, et cetera. Even if you were to become the most powerful and famous person on Earth, your memory will be distorted throughout time and eventually forgotten. If not within a few years, then it will happen in a few centuries; if not in a few centuries, it will happen when the human race no longer exists. While we may already know this to some extent and while one may grasp this idea while reading this essay, the Trance of Sorrow begins when it is truly felt and understood on a deep level that shakes the core of one’s very being.

In a sense, this Trance is one of the most crucial of all, for it is the Trance that leads one to tread the Path of the Great Work in the first place. Striving to attain the Light requires the acknowledgment that one is in Darkness. If one is completely content with oneself and one’s surroundings, there is no need to change anything or attain anything: this is the inertia of ignorance. Thus it has been said by Aleister Crowley that, “The Aspiration to become a Master is rooted in the Trance of Sorrow” (Little Essays Toward Truth, “Sorrow”) and also, “It is the Trance of sorrow that has determined one to undertake the task of emancipation. This is the energising force of Law; it is the rigidity of the fact that everything is sorrow which moves one to the task, and keeps one on the Path” (Eight Lectures on Yoga, “Niyama”). It is when one enters into this Trance that one determines to find a way to transcend it: one seeks to be liberated from the Wheel of Samsara in terms of Eastern phraseology; one seeks to find one’s immortal soul that is not subject to change, death, and sorrow in terms of Western phraseology. As Crowley once put it, one determines to enter upon the Path of “the Great Work, understanding thereby the Work of becoming a Spiritual Being, free from the constraints, accidents, and deceptions of material existence” (Magick in Theory & Practice, “Introduction and Theorems”).

As somewhat of a sidenote: In 777, the “Vision of Sorrow” is attributed to the 3rd Sephirah, Binah, and not the 10th, Malkuth. There is, in many ways, a resonance or harmony between Binah and Malkuth: they are both attributed to Heh’s in YHVH (the first Heh is attributed to Binah, the Mother, and the second or final Heh is attributed to Malkuth), and Malkuth is called the Daughter that is uplifted to the throne of Binah, the Mother (As in the 4th Aethyr of The Vision and the Voice, “And this is that which is written: Malkuth shall be uplifted and set upon the throne of Binah”). This shows that, although they are not the same, the Trance of Sorrow of Malkuth is related or harmonious with a Trance or Vision that is characteristic of Binah. In a sense, it is the Trance of Sorrow in Malkuth that gives one the impetus or motive to tread the Path of the Great Work that leads eventually to “crossing the Abyss” and landing in Binah as a Master of the Temple. To make the distinction clear, the Trance of Sorrow in Malkuth involves perceiving the insubstantiality or unsatisfactoriness of all phenomena and is therefore within the realm of duality; Binah is above the Abyss and therefore beyond duality and so not subject to “facts” or “rules” of the realm of duality. To distinguish between the two, the Trance related to Malkuth is called the “Trance of Sorrow” whereas that related to Binah is the “Trance of Compassion.” We should not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. The Path is tread step by step, and one should always seek to take the Next Step: first things first.

The Vision of Adonai / The Vision of the Holy Guardian Angel

The other Trance or Vision is called “The Vision of Adonai” or “The Vision of the Holy Guardian Angel.” Adonai is a name for God or the Lord that comes from Hebrew, and The Holy Guardian Angel is often called Adonai (for example, it is repeatedly named “Adonai” in Liber LXV, a Holy Book of Thelema). Again, it is not useful to get caught up in names: the point is that “The Vision of Adonai” and “The Vision of the Holy Guardian Angel” are two names for the same Vision.

Malkuth: The Trance of Sorrow & The Vision of Adonai

Malkuth: The Trance of Sorrow & The Vision of Adonai

The Vision of the Holy Guardian Angel is characterized by a certain awareness or perception of the Goal of the Path of the Great Work. One may get a glimpse of a certain state of consciousness that transcends the sorrow of duality, or one may even meet an aspect or form of Adonai in an astral vision or dream. Within the world of Darkness and sorrow, one catches sight of a Star that gives direction and hope: there is now “one star in sight.” In a way, the Vision of Adonai is a sort of answer to the Trance of Sorrow. Although one does not transcend the Trance of Sorrow, this Vision gives one the hope or notion of the possibility of transcending it. The Trance of Sorrow is the gravity that pulls one onto the Path that starts at Malkuth and the Vision of Adonai is the force that propels one forward to begin the climb upwards (so to speak).

To be clear: The Vision of the Holy Guardian Angel that is attributed to Malkuth is different from Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, which is attributed to Tiphareth (the 6th Sephirah). An analogy from the Golden Dawn may be useful to help explain. In the first initiation of the Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn, the “Neophyte” ritual, one is blindfolded to symbolize the darkness of ignorance. Eventually, the blindfold is removed and one is met with the sight of the Hierophant who symbolizes the Higher or True Self of the candidate. Crowley wrote:

“[The Adept] acclaims his Angel as ‘Himself Made Perfect'; adding that this Individuality is inscrutable and inviolable. In the Neophyte Ritual of G[olden] D[awn] the Hierophant is the perfected Osiris, who brings the candidate, the natural Osiris, to identity with himself. But in the new Aeon the Hierophant is Horus, therefore the Candidate will be Horus too.”
—Aleister Crowley, Liber Samekh, Point II, Part A, line 5

That is, one is given a glimpse of the goal – the True Self with whom one must become united and identified – but one has not yet attained thereto. As it is said, “the End of the ‘Path of the Wise’ is identity with Him” (“Temple of Solomon the King” in Equinox I:1). This shows how Malkuth reflects Kether in a sense (just as the grade 1°=10 has both the number of Kether,1, and Malkuth, 10), for the Goal can be grasped at the beginning of the Path, although one’s understanding of it is inherently limited by ignorance and misconception. One therefore sets upon the path to reach the Sun (the Sun or Sol is attributed to Tiphareth, the sphere where Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel is attained, which is Kether “on a lower scale,” so to speak): the star is in sight and one is determined to reach it. When one has experienced the Trance of Sorrow and been granted the Vision of Adonai, one may truly be called a “neophyte,” a newly planted seed that may one day, if cultivated carefully and consistently, grow into a Flower of Truth.

→ Part 2 → ]

Love is the law, love under will.

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7 comments

  1. This essay made me think of Guru Padmasambhava, who establishd Buddhism in Tibet. He has several legendary aspects, one of which is a kind of Universal Student who is characterized by the siddhi of hearing a teaching, or reading a book just once, and immediately having the Vision of the relevant deity without actually doing any of the expensive, complicated months long tantric invocation rituals, or whatever…

    I’ve put some time into praying for that siddhi… maybe some day.

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