magick without tears

Yama & Niyama of Thelema: What is the “ideal Thelemite”?

The Yama and Niyama of Thelema

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

What is the “ideal Thelemite”? In short: There is no such thing as an “ideal Thelemite.” The Law of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt,” which means that every individual is sovereign. Every man and every woman has their own individual Law, their own unique Will. As William Blake said, “One Law for the Lion and the Ox is Oppression.”

The fact that “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt” (Liber AL, III:60) is precisely why there are no standard or universal ideals. Each individual has their own Will, and each Law must have its own, unique “ideal.” Regarding the fact that there are no standards or universal ideals, Crowley writes: 

“What is necessary is not to seek after some fantastic ideal, utterly unsuited to our real needs, but to discover the true nature of those needs, to fulfill them, and rejoice therein.” —Magick Without Tears, chapter 8

“Know then, o my Son, that all Laws, all Systems, all Customs, all Ideals and Standards which tend to produce Uniformity, being in direct Opposition to Nature’s Will to change and to develop through Variety, are accursèd.”  —Liber Aleph, chapter 31: ‘De Lege Motus’

“Each child must develop its own Individuality, and Will, disregarding alien Ideals. … Let children educate themselves to be themselves. Those who train them to standards cripple and deform them. Alien ideals impose parasitic perversions. … Standards of education, ideals of Right-and-Wrong, conventions, creeds, codes, stagnate Mankind.” —On the Education of Children

One might argue that Thelema is itself a “universal ideal.” Thelema is a universal Law insofar as “Do what thou wilt” states that each individual must find their own unique Will, their own particular Law. The universal ideal is therefore that there are no universal ideals: each must “discover the true nature of [one’s real] needs, to fulfill them, and rejoice therein.” The only absolute is that there are no absolutes; the only constant is change. 

In a way, then, we can say that the “ideal Thelemite” is one who does their own Will and lets others do their Wills. This “ideal Thelemite” follows their own Law and others follow their own, different Laws; there are no universal ideals of “what is best” or “what is absolutely Right and Wrong” beyond this. This is what is sometimes called the “Yama and Niyama of Thelema.”

We borrow the terms “Yama” and “Niyama” from the Hindu system of raja yoga as explained, among other places, in Patanjali’s classic treatise called the Yogasutras. Yama and Niyama are words that mean opposite things, similar to “Thou shalt not” (Yama) and “Thou shalt” (Niyama). Unfortunately, translating them  into English is not easy, but their real meaning in the context of Thelema becomes clear with just a little explication.

The Yama of Thelema is to have the self-discipline to find one’s own Will and to do that Will. As it is said, “Thou hast no right but to do thy will” (Liber AL, I:42). The Niyama of Thelema is to mind your own business or, in other words, to allow others to find and do their Wills. The Niyama is to extend the same absolute liberty to do your own Will that you rightfully claim to all other individuals. In short:

  • The Yama of Thelema: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Thou hast no right but to do thy will.
  • The Niyama of Thelema: Mind your own business.

Yama: Crowley mentions that Yama means something similar to “control” or “the  word ‘inhibition’ as used by biologists.” Basically, Yama means the self-discipline to remain on the “track” or “path” of one’s True Will and not swerving from it. “Thou hast no right but to do thy will,” (Liber AL, I:42) which shows that you are by definition outside of your sole right when you deviate from your Path. This requires the self-discipline to remain true to one’s own Law. As Crowley writes, “What is true for every School is equally true for every individual. Success in life, on the basis of the Law of Thelema, implies severe self-discipline.” Crowley gives a succinct summary of the Yama of Thelema when he writes:

“I wish to thunder forth once more that no questions of right or wrong enter into our problems. But in the stratosphere it is ‘right’ for a man to be shut up in a pressure-resisting suit electrically heated, with an oxygen supply, whereas it would be ‘wrong’ for him to wear it if he were running the three miles in the summer sports in the Tanezrouft. This is the pit into which all the great religious teachers have hitherto fallen, and I am sure you are all looking hungrily at me in the hope of seeing me do likewise. But no! There is one principle which carries us through all conflicts concerning conduct, because it is perfectly rigid and perfectly elastic: — ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.’ That is Yama.” —Eight Lectures on Yoga, “Yama”

Niyama: There is no “opposite term” of Yama, or self-discipline, to adequately translate “Niyama.” We might say that the complementary term of “self-discipline” is, in this case, something like “other-discipline.” If Yama is the discipline we have toward ourselves in remaining true to our own Law, Niyama is the discipline we have toward others in allowing them to remain true to their own Laws. This “other-discipline” can be summarized as “Mind your own business.” Crowley says as much in several places:

“Mind your own business! is the sole sufficient rule.” —Magick Without Tears, chapter 15

“I will have thee to know, moreover, my dear Son, the right Art of Conduct with them whom I shall give thee for Initiation. And the Rule thereof is one Rule: Do that thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. See thou constantly to it that this be not broken; especially in the Section thereof (if I dare say so) which readeth Mind thine own Business. This is of Application equally to all, and the most dangerous Man (or Woman, as has occurred, or I err) is the Busy-body. Oh how ashamed are we, and moved to Indignation, seeing the Sins and Follies of our Neighbours!” —Liber Aleph, chapter 96: ‘De Discipulis Regendis’

“Every Star has its own Nature, which is ‘Right’ for it. We are not to be missionaries, with ideal standards of dress and morals, and such hard-ideas. We are to do what we will, and leave others to do what they will. We are infinitely tolerant, save of intolerance”. —New Comment to Liber AL, II:57

“It is necessary that we stop, once for all, this ignorant meddling with other people’s business. Each individual must be left free to follow his own path.” —New Comment to Liber AL, I:31

The name Crowley gives for someone who fails to uphold the Niyama of Thelema is a “busy-body.” A busy-body is someone who is concerned about what other people are doing, how other people are doing things, and why other people are doing things. A busy-body is concerned about someone else’s True Will rather than being concerned with their own. They are indignant about the “sins and follies” of their neighbors rather than focusing on themselves, and generally meddle in others’ affairs. A busy-body, in short, does not mind their own business.

We are all busy-bodies to some degree or another whenever we impose our standards, expectations, or ideals on others, whenever we think that “we know best” for anyone other than ourselves. This can be anything from the most mundane and concrete such as criticizing another’s choice in clothing to the more subtle such as expecting others to perform the same spiritual practices as oneself or insisting that people who believe something different from oneself must be “corrected.” 

When put into practice, we quickly see that the Niyama of Thelema – that of minding one’s own business and allowing others to do their Wills – is not simply a limp passivity. It is not “grinning and bearing it,” which implies that – deep down – you actually don’t want them to do their Wills (let alone that you obviously aren’t rejoicing in it!). The Niyama of Thelema is an active, positive thing: we actively affirm the right of each individual to know and do their True Will. When we greet one another, we look fearlessly into each others’ eyes and say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” This is to say to everyone you meet, as Crowley writes, “Look, brother, we are free! Rejoice with me, sister, there is no law beyond Do what thou wilt!” 

Some might say that it takes strength to control everything, but it is a much greater strength to not need to control everything and everyone. It is a symptom of being unsure and anxious to feel the need to control people by insisting that it’s your way or the highway. That is: Being a busy-body is a symptom of weakness and fear, although it will inevitably mask itself in the “virtue” that essentially comes down to “knowing what is best” for someone else (let alone “all other Thelemites”!). That is where “compassion” and “altruism” and even “teaching” teeters into the realm of folly.

We will all inevitably hear (or probably have already heard) some self-avowed Thelemite question why others are not doing this or that, insisting they are complaining about others because they “really care” about Thelema. Many of us have fallen prey to this ourselves (“Oh no! Definitely not me!” … Yes, you especially!). This “care” – this “noble cause” of ours – is nothing but the demands of a busy-body cloaking itself in guise of “virtue.” We all should remember to “veil not your vices in virtuous words” (Liber AL, II:52). This “care” basically comes down to insisting that everyone else must have the same values as yourself, which is exactly opposite to affirming “Do what thou wilt.” If you ever find yourself asking, or hear someone else asking, something that amounts to “Why doesn’t this other person/these other people think that this is important?” The answer is most likely “Because it isn’t important to them, nor does it need to be”… or, more pointedly, “Mind your own business.” This is why there is no “ideal Thelemite.” This is why “One Law for the Lion and the Ox is Oppression.” Any insistence otherwise will quickly fall into the same trap that characterized the Old Aeon, the tyranny of a single standard or ideal for all people, rather than a multiplicity of Laws, each uniquely suited to the individual. 

Again: The Niyama of Thelema is not a limp, passive, “grin and bear it” quality. On the contrary: It takes an active, almost virile quality to say to every individual, “I don’t know what your Will is, I don’t know what your ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are, I don’t even know how your Will may interact with and effect mine, but I grant you the absolute right to do your Will and I claim the equally absolute right to do my Will.”  This is far from a passive “letting things happen”; the Niyama of Thelema is an active affirmation, an enthusiastic encouragement, a joyous battle-cry for each and every man and woman to discover their real needs, to fulfill them, and to rejoice therein. To believe otherwise is the essence of tyranny; to act otherwise is the essence of oppression. This requires the strength to stand in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity, of accepting variety and difference of style and opinion, of not knowing “how everything should be” for everyone or anyone else. Any concern arising about others “not doing it the right way” should be a reminder to us all to re-focus on our own Will: this should be a reminder of the Yama of staying true to our own Path and the Niyama of affirming the right of others to be true to their Paths.

 This is the simplicity and the beauty of the Law of Thelema: There are no absolute standards or universal ideals. Fresh Fever From the Skies: The Collected Writings of IAO131Every man and every woman has the indefeasible right and duty to know and do his or her True Will. Each has their own standard, their own Law. Any occurrence of someone imposing their Law on another, or anyone accepting a Law imposed on them by another, is a distortion and deforming of a star’s true nature. It is our Yama to adhere to this Law of our own True Will, and it is our Niyama to affirm the right of every other individual to adhere to the Law of his or her own True Will. This is real Freedom, the perfect order on Earth as the stars move seamlessly in the perfect order in the Heavens; this why our Law of “Do what thou wilt” is the Law of Liberty itself.

Love is the law, love under will.

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Is Thelema a Religion or not?

Is Thelema Religion or Not?

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

One of the ever-present questions in the discourse about Thelema is whether or not it is a religion. I think this question is most poetically answered by someone – I believe the credit goes to Jake Stratton-Kent – who said:

“There is religion in Thelema for those that require it. There is also freedom from religion in Thelema, for those that require it.”

In short: Yes… and no. All I can attempt to do is elaborate on this position to make it a bit more clear.

Before going too far in depth, it should be said that – according to anthropologists, sociologists, theologists, and the like – Thelema would most definitely be classified as a “religion.” It has a “Bible” (Liber AL vel Legis), a moral code (Do what thou wilt), a Prophet (To Mega Therion), a set of practices (Magick), and even a “pantheon” (Nuit, Hadit, Ra-Hoor-Khuit, Hoor-paar-kraat, et cetera). Whether or not this is entirely an accurate designation is another question.

We might first look at why people wouldn’t want to call Thelema a “religion.” The answer is fairly obvious: “religion” in the 21st Century has become synonymous with superstition, tyranny, and oppression. There is no doubt about this: organized religion has, for millenia, been a force for all of these horrible things that stand against the spirit of Liberty. Many people who are most vocal about Thelema not being a religion are those who experienced this superstition, tyranny, and oppression first-hand in their childhood, and I personally do not find their reaction to be hard to understand. 

In this light, we can see that Crowley himself was wary of the use of the term “religion” to describe Thelema. In a letter found in Magick Without Tears, he writes:

“To sum up, our system is a religion just so far as a religion means an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines, no one of which must in any way clash with Science or Magick. Call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief.

We should note, firstly, that Crowley begins this quotation by saying that – according to a certain definition of religion as “an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines” – Thelema is, in fact, a religion. He then says that calling Thelema a “religion” may cause misunderstanding and mischief. He does not explain exactly why it would cause misunderstanding and mischief but we can guess that it is most likely for the aforementioned reasons: it associates it with the Old Aeon religions that are gleaming beacons of superstition, tyranny, and oppression, i.e. those exact things we are set to destroy with our Law of Liberty. People may also assume that we believe things that other religions do, especially the Judeo-Christian-Islamic type, such as the belief in a gaseous vertebrate breed of God, which is most certainly false. 

In short, we may refrain from calling Thelema a religion because it associates it with superstition, tyranny, and oppression which Thelema is firmly against in every way, being the Law of Liberty. Our Law is simultaneously more simple and more nuanced than a belief in a Judeo-Christian-Islamic Daddy-in-the-sky God. Keep in mind, though, that this implies that calling Thelema a religion may cause misunderstanding and mischief, but it does not imply that the designation is inaccurate in some fundamental way. 

Now we may turn to the reasons why Thelema is a religion. First of all, Crowley calls Thelema a religion repeatedly.

In his commentary on Liber AL, III:22, Crowley writes:

Our religion therefore, for the People, is the Cult of the Sun, who is our particular star of the Body of Nuit, from whom, in the strictest scientific sense, come this earth, a chilled spark of Him, and all our Light and Life.”

In this line, he very clearly calls Thelema a religion, although there is a caveat that it is “for the People,” by which we may assume he means “the masses” and not necessarily for the “Hermits” or “initiates” or “Adepts”  (although this is, admittedly, an assumption).

In The Constitution of the Order of Thelemites, Crowley writes this Order is against “All superstitious religion, as obstacles to the establishment of scientific religion.” Here he clearly calls Thelema a religion, but he opposes “superstitious religion” (those of the Old Aeon and many of those that have cropped up in the New Aeon as well) to “scientific religion.” We get a further clarification that Thelema, insofar as it is a religion, is not opposed to science. 

In the “Editorial” prefacing The Equinox III:1 (also known as The Blue Equinox), Crowley writes an important passage:

The world needs religion. Religion must represent Truth, and celebrate it. This truth is of two orders: one, concerning Nature external to Man; two, concerning Nature internal to Man.

Existing religions, especially Christianity, are based on primitive ignorance of the facts, particularly of external Nature. Celebrations must conform to the custom and nature of the people. Christianity has destroyed the joyful celebrations, characterized by music, dancing, feasting, and making love; and has kept only the melancholy.

The Law of Thelema offers a religion which fulfils all necessary conditions. The philosophy and metaphysics of Thelema are sound, and offer a solution of the deepest problems of humanity. The science of Thelema is orthodox; it has no false theories of Nature, no false fables of the origin of things. The psychology and ethics of Thelema are perfect. It has destroyed the damnable delusion of Original Sin, making every one unique, independent, supreme, and sufficient. The Law of Thelema is given in the Book of the Law.”

Here we have another instance of Crowley explicitly calling Thelema a religion. He insists again that it must “represent Truth, and celebrate it,” concurring with the aforementioned quotation that insists Thelema is a “scientific religion.”

From these quotations, it seems fairly clear that Crowley did – with the caveat that it represents and celebrates Truth and is “scientific” – consider Thelema a religion. There is a further point that, in my opinion, clarifies the entire matter: Thelema is a religion but it is more than just a religion. I have said several times that Thelema is an all-encompassing paradigm, and this is meant to imply that Thelema is a religion… and much more.

We have already seen inklings of this idea in the previous quotation where Crowley calls Thelema a religion while also mentioning the philosophy, metaphysics, science, psychology, and ethics of Thelema. In his Confessions, Crowley conveys this idea that Thelema is more than just a religion with great clarity when he writes:

Thelema implies not merely a new religion, but a new cosmology, a new philosophy, a new ethics. It co-ordinates the disconnected discoveries of science, from physics to psychology, into a coherent and consistent system. Its scope is so vast that it is impossible even to hint at the universality of its application.”

He says “Thelema implies not merely a new religion.” It also implies a new cosmology, philosophy, and ethics. Thelema is not limited to the small sphere of theology. This perspective is reflected in the fact that we, following Crowley, call Thelema a “Law.” This Law is given in The Book of the Law. Crowley also calls Thelema a “formula.” For example, in the essay “The Beginning of the New World” (which can be found in the recently-published The Revival of Magick), Crowley writes:

“The many religions of the world have all lost their power to guide chiefly because the development of means of transport and of international commerce have convinced the educated that any one religion is about as good or bad as another for the purposes of social discipline, and that none has any validity from the standpoint of actual fact, or historical or philosophical truth.

The remedy is evidently to be found only in one way. There must be found a formula based upon absolute common sense, without one trammel of theological theory or dogma, a formula to which no man of intelligence can refuse assent, and which at the same time affords an absolute sanction for all laws of conduct, social and political no less than individual, so that the right or wrong of any isolated or concerted action can be determined with mathematical accuracy by any trained observer, entirely irrespective of his personal idiosyncrasies. This formula is: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

When we consider Thelema as a “Law” or a “formula,” we are – first of all – using language that is in common with science (e.g. “the law of gravity” or “the formula for calculating velocity”). More importantly, we are using language that is universal insofar as this Law or formula applies to all aspects of life. 

Fresh Fever From the Skies: The Collected Writings of IAO131I believe the idea that Thelema is not just a religion but a new paradigm of cosmology, metaphysics, ethics, and psychology is the most accurate perspective on whether or not Thelema is a religion. Insofar as Thelema is a religion, it is a religion that is explicitly opposed to superstition, to “theological theory or dogma” (ideally!), and oppression. In the end, what’s in a name? Thelema’s Law is “Do what thou wilt” and people are free to call it a religion or not. Whether you choose to call it a religion or not is your own choice, and whether or not someone else chooses to call Thelema a religion is none of our business. The real question, the one that really matters, is: Are you living the Law of Thelema? Have you written “Do what thou wilt” in your heart and in your brain? Have you used the simplicity of the Key of the Law to unlock the complexities of philosophy, psychology, theology, and daily life? In short: are you doing your True Will or not? In light of this central consideration all other things, including what names and titles we give to things, are – at best – totally irrelevant and are – at worst – leading us to mischief and futility. As always: There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.

Love is the law, love under will.

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