PART 3: MYSTICISM IN PRACTICE
Conceived as a Path, Mysticism is the Science and Art of achieving the direct experience of the ultimate spiritual truth or goal. There are many ways of conceptualizing this Path and of treading this Path. These will be explored in turn.
The Conceptualizations of the Mystic Path
The Mystic Path refers to the process of achieving the direct experience of the Mystic Goal. There are two fundamental ways of conceiving or conceptualizing this Path:
1) The Journey: The Goal is something we do not have but must attain, obtain, or achieve. We must therefore go on a “journey” (or “pilgrimage,” “quest,” “sojourn,” et cetera) to get what we do not yet have.
2) The Transmutation: This Goal is something we already have but are not aware of it. We must therefore undergo a process of transmuting ourselves into one who is capable of perceiving this Goal, of “uncovering” or “discovering” it.
The labels of “The Journey” and “The Transmutation” are for convenience, though the reasons for choosing these names will become apparent. Both of these conceptions of the Path are essentially identical, although using different metaphors. Sometimes both labels are intermingled with each other in a single metaphor. In a way, they are just reflections of one another: Transmutation may be considered as a Journey inwards until the Goal is perceived, and the Journey may be considered as a series of Transmutations until the Goal is reached. The use of one metaphor over another often implies or is the result of the particular metaphysical and/or theological views of whomever is speaking, but some Mystics – including Aleister Crowley – can operate within both the “Journey” and “Transmutation” metaphors.
We should always remember “the map is not the territory.” A certain type of map may be more useful to a certain type of person over another type – for example, a map using Buddhist terminology would probably be less useful to a Christian and a map using Jewish symbolism may obscure the Path more than reveal it for a Hindu. One of the natural outgrowths of Thelema’s syncretism of various traditions is its ability to fluidly move between different “maps” without getting caught in any one particular way of thinking about the “territory” of the Mystic Path. We must remember that the Mystic Goal always was and always will be, by its very nature, ultimately ineffable; it is truly incommunicable in the language of Reason and therefore the “secret of secrets.”
The Mystic Path, because it deals largely with the practicalities of the Work, is more amenable to language but still liable to confusion because it deals with the “inner life” of the individual of which we can only speak using symbols and metaphors. The Mystic Path also is highly variable depending on the constitution of the individual and their culture, yet there is a unity in the Mystic methods of attainment that certain individuals like Crowley were able to perceive beyond the variety of language used to describe the methods. Before looking into these methods, we will look further into the different conceptualizations of the Path: the Journey and the Transmutation.
Included in this category are all “Journeys” from a state that is “low” or “bad” to a state that is “high” or “good,” including:
- The Journey from the Darkness of ignorance toward the Light of Truth.
- The Journey from the lowest sphere of Malkuth toward the highest sphere of Kether, often called “climbing the Tree of Life.” Likewise, all “emanationist” theories that involve the emanation of the One into the Many, involve the “Journey” back to the Original One, sometimes called “The Path of Return.”
- The Journey or Climbing of “Jacob’s Ladder” from Earth to Heaven, or upward through the various “hierarchies” of the Divine (e.g. through the hierarchies of Dionysius or the “Ten Heavens” of Dante).
- The Journey from the realm of Samsara “across the stream” toward the realm of Nirvana.
- The Journey from home to some sacred place – for example, John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” where one travels from one’s home in the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City,” or – alternatively – the search for the Lost Paradise such as The Garden of Eden, El Dorado, Shangri-la, or Shambhala.
- The Journey of the Lover to find and unite with the Beloved.
All “Quests” for holy, sacred, or rare objects fall under this category of the Journey including:
- The Quest for the Holy Grail.
- The Quest for the Elixir of Immortality / Potion of Eternal Life / Fountain of Youth.
- The Search for the “buried treasure,” as in Matthew 13:44, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field.”
- The Search for the “Lost Word.”
There are several characteristics of the Path that are implied by using the metaphor of “The Journey”:
- One begins in an un-enlightened or “un-initiated” state. In the language of Magical Orders, one’s Path begins as one of the “profane.” This often involves understanding oneself as full of ignorance, dominated by the senses and instincts, and without any knowledge of one’s true Path. The “Journey” is from this state to the “perfected” state of achieving the Mystic Goal.
- One is now on a difficult Journey, which will be full of hardships or obstacles (the “ordeals”), and there will be great uncertainty, even regardless of the fact that many “maps” have been made of the “Path” to guide one on one’s Journey.
- There will be several “landmarks” along the Way (the “stages” or “grades”), both marking one’s progress as well as directing one further along the Path.
The “Transmutation” is a metaphor that essentially implies that we already are in possession of the “Goal” – we are already enlightened, already divine – but, because of our “imperfection” or “ignorance,” we are unaware of it. “Transmutation” therefore involves changing, perfecting, or “transmuting” the self in various ways in order that one may come to a clearer awareness thereof. All metaphors that involve altering, changing, or “perfecting” oneself are included in this category, including:
- The Great Work of Alchemy, transmuting the “dross” of the self into “gold”
- Progressively “seeing” one’s inherently “pure” or “perfect” nature, as when it is said in Mahayana Buddhism, “People should realize that the buddha-nature is something they have always had”
- The process of “building the Temple of Solomon,” or – similarly – the process of working upon the crude “rough ashlar” in order to form it into the “perfect ashlar.”
- The transmutation of the Kundalini serpent, bringing it from the lowest chakra at the base of the spine (Muladhara), all the way up the spine, to rest at the “third eye” (Ajna).
- The “Journey to the Center” as seen in images of labyrinths and mandalas, which combines the ideas of the Journey and the Transmutation.
The metaphor of Transmutation implies several things. Primarily, Transmutation implies that we already “have” the Goal but our consciousness has not been “perfected” in order to become consciously aware of it. The “Path” is therefore a process of Transmutation that involves subjecting oneself to various processes – disciplines, purifications, et cetera – that enable this inherent Truth to become available to our conscious awareness.
Again, it should be remembered that both “The Journey” and “The Transmutation” are two sides of the same coin. As can be seen by the quotations above, both metaphors are used within Thelema even within the same text. The purpose of this section is to show the various manifestations of these two ways by which the Mystic Path is understood and to show that they are, in fact, two ways of understanding the same Path.
The Stages or “Grades” of the Path
There are as many ways to conceptualize the various stages of the Mystic Path as there are Mystics. Some Mystics even use several “maps.” In the end, the Path is infinitely varied but maintains a near-identical essence in all cases. There are three fundamental stages of the Mystic Path that correspond with the Three Grades mentioned in The Book of the Law. Each stage or “Grade” is characterized by a certain “ordeal” that leads one to enter the Grade, and a certain “work” characteristic of the Grade. This loosely correspond to the beginning (ordeal) and middle (work) of the particular “Grade.”
1) The Man of Earth: The Beginning of the Path
The first stage can be likened to the Grade of “Man of Earth.” This is the beginning of the Path where one is a “neophyte,” which literally means “newly planted.”
The Ordeal: Everyone is drawn to the Path for the same, basic reason: Discontent.
Without some form of discontent (or “dissatisfaction” or “dis-ease”), there would never be any reason to seek or to strive for anything. Everyone begins with a discontent in some degree. Some begin with the impetus that amounts to realizing “There must be something more than this.” At the extreme, this same discontent approaches what is called “The Trance of Sorrow,” which amounts to realizing that all material things are finite, temporal, and subject to death. In Buddhist language, the First Noble Truth that “Existence is suffering” becomes overwhelmingly evident. The Path is then understood as “transcending suffering,” “transcending the temporal/finite,” or even “mastering myself and my environment.”
Conversely, one may be drawn to the Path by the opposite or complement of discontent, which amounts to being drawn to the Path by having some kind of perception of the possibility of one’s “higher development.” One may realize that there is “something more to this” in the sense that one comes to believe that there is a possibility of life that involves greater wisdom, understanding, power, truth, beauty, and/or peace. At the extreme, this same “hope” approaches what is called “The Vision of Adonai,” becoming aware of the Mystic Goal in some way, even – in some cases – catching an experiential “glance” of what the Goal is like (sometimes called “higher states of consciousness”).
The Trance of Sorrow and the Vision of Adonai are really two sides of the same coin. If one perceives the unsatisfactoriness of all temporal things in the Trance of Sorrow, one will therefore conversely seek the possibility of a type of life that transcends these sorrows. If one perceives the joy and beauty of catching a glimpse of “Truth” (or “the Divine,” or “Reality,” et cetera), one will therefore conversely look at one’s life and see – by contrast – its finiteness, sorrow, and imperfection. These things can happen suddenly (as in a “flash”) or they can dawn gradually – each individual’s Path is unique, but each one begins with this perception of discontent or the perception of the possibility of transcendence.
The Work: The Work at this stage or “Grade” is called many names but essentially involves severe self-discipline in order to transform one’s character from the old habits – both old “vices” and old “virtues” – to a new way that is conducive to the achieving the Goal. There are generally “negative” and “positive” aspects of this that amount to clearing away the old habits (“vices,” which used to be called “sins”) that are in the way of one’s Path and building up new habits that are conducive to the Path (“virtues”). It is a stripping-away or rooting-out of the bad and a cleansing of the good (“good” and “bad” being relative terms to each individual as well as to the particular Purpose of achieving the Mystic Goal). They correspond exactly to the process of Purification and Consecration in Magick, and they may also be understood as the process of “balancing the Elements.” This Work is based on severe and persistent discipline: it is an incredibly difficult part of the Path, but we may be assured that – as with all habits – the process begins in a difficult way, becomes easier, and then becomes almost natural and effortless.
Purification – The self must be purged of all those parts of the self – body, senses, thoughts, emotions, and desires – that stand in opposition to the attainment of the one object of the Mystic Goal. This process has been called many things by different Mystics including “asceticism,” “detachment,” “poverty,” and “purgation.” These practices can often be harsh, but they are always used as a means to an end. All the “purifications” are a means to strip away all forms of egoism – of the sense of separateness that is the root of our discontent – to allow for the Truth (or “God” or “Reality” or “the Absolute”) to dawn in our awareness.
Why do we need Purification? We are slaves to our desires, our cravings, and our habits. We run after things including wealth, fame, and pleasure, but we are always left dissatisfied. This is because the only true satisfaction comes from the achievement of the Mystic Goal: we are assured of this by the ordeal of the Trance of Sorrow, although it can even be appreciated intellectually. Purification, then, is the process whereby we break down the habits of striving after and resting in things that are less than the Mystic Goal: Purification is renunciation. This is why the basis of Buddhist training is to release attachments from all the aspects of oneself, right down to the attachment to the sense of “self.” This is why Christ said, “Blessed are they who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is why, in Thelema, it is repeatedly said that True Will is not one’s wishes, whims, likes, or desires – it is the strictest possible bond. This is why the process of “the stripping of self-will” of Christian mystics is virtually identical to the process of attainment in the New Aeon: we must strip away the false layers of ego-driven desires in order to perceive the True Will.
What are the things we are purifying? The subjects of our purifying amounts essentially to anything within oneself that says “I want” or “I have.” We must give up all those things which we claim as our own, and we must give up all those desires which are not the One Desire of achieving the Mystic Goal. Though there are many intense phrases and images used when describing this Purification, the essential fact is a change of attitude, not certain acts. That is, when we say one must renounce all one’s possessions, that means that one must release all attachment thereto, not literally give away everything that one possesses (although there may be many things that one might literally give away that are unnecessary, and the attitude in giving things away is exactly the one required for the release of attachment). Giving away things does not mean one has released attachment from them, just as putting on the robe of a Buddhist monk does not mean one is a Buddhist monk: again, it is the attitude or “way of being” that is altered.
Therefore, the process of Purification is a process of detachment from all things. One must analyze every aspect of one’s being, searching for all attachments we have, and progressively and completely renounce them for the Quest of achieving the Mystic Goal and nothing else. Purification is, in a way, ruthless in its abandonment and it must reach all aspects of one’s being. All sensory pleasures must be renounced. All relationships must be renounced. All one’s cherished beliefs and preferences must be renounced. All one’s aspirations and desires must be renounced. The only pleasure for the Mystic is the achievement of the Mystic Goal, the only relationship is that with God, the only belief is the necessity to achieve Truth, the only aspiration is the ultimate Union with the Absolute. Each individual’s path must be different by necessity, but all bear this hallmark of Purification or “renunciation.” The study of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride), the yama of Yoga (non-violence, non-falsehood, non-stealing, non-lusting, non-possessiveness), the five precepts of Buddhism (abstaining from violence, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxicants), and other similar systems will give any earnest aspirant a good idea of what is necessarily involved in this process of Purification. The end result is a profound humility and detachment, yet the process is obviously one of the most difficult tasks that can be conceived insofar as one is changing one’s character by fighting against and releasing attachment to virtually everything that pushed and guided oneself until now. Suffering is the steam released by the fire of Purification, but the result is a humble, purified self that is ready to strive toward the next step on the Path.
Consecration – If Purification involves removing the “bad,” then Consecration involves strengthening the “good.” Again, this “good” is relative to each individual and relative to the particular End of achieving the Mystic Goal; Consecration is, like Purification, a means to an end. Failing to see this and, instead, perceiving the disciplines of Purification and consecration as Absolutes, is the foundation for endless superstition and dogmatism.
Purification involves disentangling ourselves from all the things which impede the achievement of our sole Object and Goal on the Path, and Consecration involves gathering together the various threads of our life in order to devote them to the achievement of this Goal. This involves the strengthening of “virtues” that are conducive to achieving the Goal. A study of the seven virtuous complements to the seven deadly sins (chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility), the niyama of Yoga (purity, contentment, spiritual effort, study of holy texts, surrender to God), the paramitas of Buddhism (geneorsity, proper conduct, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, honesty, determination, kindness, calmness), or the Eightfold Path (right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) will give the earnest aspirant an understanding of what this Consecration may entail for them. In Eight Lectures on Yoga, Crowley enumerates the qualities of niyama that he believes are useful including endurance, patience, selfless love, willfullness/strength, courage, energy, acceptance of all experience, equilibrium, indifference, and pure aspiration. We may also include the mysterious and terrible Four Powers of the Sphinx: to Know, to Will, to Dare, and to Keep Silence.
In general, every aspect of one’s life must be closely and consistently knit together to have everything be devoted toward the accomplishment of the Great Work, the achievement of the Mystic Goal. All actions, words, and thoughts must be devoted to the end of this Mystic Goal.
This work of “transmuting” the various things in one’s life into the single Purpose of achieving the Mystic Goal is seen in the practice of “saying Will.” At meals we say, “What is thy Will? It is my Will to eat and drink. To what end? That I may fortify my body thereby. To what end? That I may accomplish the Great Work.” This same process of asking “To what end?” must be done for every single aspect of one’s life, and the answer must always terminate in “To accomplish the Great Work.” If you cannot see how it relates to the accomplishment of the Great Work, the achievement of the Mystic Goal, then it is probably something that must be “purified” from your life. The process of devoting all things, all actions, all speech, and all thoughts to this single End is the essence of Consecration.
Therefore, the primary virtue beyond all others and to which all others attend and aid is that of one-pointedness. The primary skill of one-pointedness is concentration. Concentration is developed through meditation.
Meditation involves holding a single object of concentration in mind, throwing all one’s force into being aware solely of that object, and discarding all distractions from this one object. This is the essence of the method of all Mystics, and the process of becoming more and more engrossed in the object of meditation is also the process of progressing through the stages, steps, or “Grades” of the Mystic Path. The difficulties of meditation reflect the work of one’s “Grade” and the successes reflect one’s progress on the Path. It can be seen that this particular practice of meditation is in the microcosm, so to speak, what one must do with one’s entire life in the macrocosm. At this “Grade,” one must simply strive to maintain the object of one’s meditation in mind, whether this is a mantra, an image, one’s breath, or whatever else. This corresponds to the first “stage” of meditation in Yoga known as dharana. The process is difficult: the mind will find every possible excuse to stray from the one purpose of the meditation, which is a reflection of one’s current stage of the Path as a whole. Remember why you are on this Path, the ordeal of the Trance of Sorrow. Be persistent. Be one-pointed. One will then inevitably come to the next stage of the Mystic Path.