Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Nature of the Ego

This ego, which is but a ghost without a form of its own, comes into being by taking hold of a form; keeping hold of the form and enjoying sense-objects, it waxes greatly in strength: if the truth of it be sought, it will run away.” ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Reality in Fourty Verses

This is a topic which I have been wanting to revisit for a while, now. I first posted about the ego back in 2009 in a post, one of my most popular ever by statistics, called “In Defense of the Ego”. Even at the time of that posting, however, my understanding of the topic was shifting dramatically. In fact, said understanding went through such flux that I made that post private until I sorted the whole thing out at least a little better. While I in no way claim to have become enlightened, I think that I at least see quite a bit better where certain teachings come from, what they mean, and why they are correct. So, while I am about to largely contradict my three-years-ago self, I have unblocked the original post; if you please, go back and read it with my blessings.

I still agree with my former self that New Age and New Thought teachers largely misunderstand the ego, its place, and what ought to be done about it, but at that time I misunderstood the teachings of the East, especially of India (Hinduism) and those teachings which arose from India (that is, Buddhism). I made the mistake of accepting the Western misinterpretations for the teachings themselves. In point of fact, the Buddhist and Hindu teachings are much more sober and sophisticated than I had believed.

The ego is, of itself, simply that part of the soul, psyche, or ruach which declares, “I”; the word “ego” is, after all, only the Latin word “I”. In the advaita-vāda, it is taught that the ego is, in a sense, the root of the individual soul or personality because the ego is what declares “I, I” concerning the body, the body’s characteristics, such things as personal preferences and tastes, and the whole bag of goodies which we call “personality”. The ego is the trick or illusion of identifying with these things, individually or together makes little difference. It is, then, no less egotistical to identify oneself with one’s charitableness than with one’s good looks and, quite surprising to many, it is still no less egotistical to identify with one’s collective affiliations. Patriotism and sectarianism, just because they require identification with multiple other egos, does not in any way transcend ego but merely makes it as large, powerful, and impenetrable as the group with which it identifies.

If the ego is the root of the personal soul, it sprouts from the seed of the Intellect. To those familiar with the Scholastic, esoteric, and metaphysical definition of Intellect, this may come as a surprise; after all, the Intellect is—far from being one’s individual property or identity—quite transpersonal and Universal in nature and orientation. René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon even go so far as to identifyātma with Intellect. There isn’t space within the present topic to enter into all of the subtleties, here, or the how/how-not why/why-not of this analogy (which Guénon and Schuon definitely intended such identification to be, given the limitations of language in this subject matter), but suffice it to say that Intellect is to the Absolute as the moon is to the sun, and that the individual mind is to Intellect as a mirror to the moon; this analogy, like all analogies, is not perfect, but it gives us the sense that Intellect reflects the Light of Wisdom into the darkness of ignorance in a form which does not blind the unprepared; this Light is apprehended even indirectly, however, through the agency of the mind of the individual, more or less perfectly depending upon the polish and cleanliness of each mind. The capacity of the mind to discern the Intellect depends upon the degree to which it has identified itself with Intellect, and the revelations which we receive into our minds from Intellect come by way of the highest mental faculty of intuition.

Returning to our main topic, Intellect serves as the ego’s seed insofar as Intellect is the root of the sense of “I”; in the case of Intellect, though, this “I” is Universal and beyond any actual object of identification. It is, in short, pure subjectivity without any object. The ego is, paradoxically, both the source of object-identificationand this object-identification itself. As explained above, ego is the mere statement of “I am that,” pointing toward any given transitory object or event. Thus, it is ego which says, “I am this body,” and equally it is ego which says, “I am a fan of that sports team”, and again it is the ego which says, “I am feeling pain.”

The esoteric cosmologies of Genesis, the Secret Book of John, the Vedas, and others, teach us that this process is both intensely personal and terrifyingly cosmic. Thus, we see in the classic Gnostic myth of the Fall of Sophia a very clear retelling of this process in the form of a divine tragedy: Wisdom (Intellect-as-reflection) suddenly falls into a mis-identification or self-misunderstanding which produces the twisted creator-god.  The limitations of language do not permit the story to say that this demiurge is both the misunderstanding and its result, though the Valentinian Gospel of Truth attempts to get this point across by the seeming autogenesis of “Forgetfulness” out of “Error”; the great ambiguity, of course, is how and why did the perfect and pristine Wisdom-Intellect make such a blunder in the first place, and why did the Father-Absolute permit it? No Scripture, to my knowledge, attempts to give a firm answer to this question, though the Masters who have said anything on it at all have largely demured by reminding us that the “why” is of no importance and will answer itself by way of Realization/enlightenment. The fact that this process creates both the cosmic illusion of a trap and the individual delusion trapped within it is a great clue as to the means of escape, as well as the motive behind teachings that every individual’s enlightenment, salvation, or liberation is an event of cosmic importance.

The ego (and, by extension, the demiurge) is thus less of a villain and more of an antihero. There seems to be no intention on the part of any Master that we should hate it, in a passionate or emotional sense, but rather that we should hold dispassion toward it. If strong language like “hatred” or “revulsion” are applied to it, it is only in the ends of emphasizing what our proper relationship with it should be: not identification.

We are brought, then, to the two complementary ways given of “dealing with” the ego, once and for all. I will use, for examples of these two perspectives, a Master and His student.

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi often taught that the goal is to “kill” or destroy the ego; one of His students, a Westerner called Paul Brunton, preferred to speak of transcending it or learning to ignore it. Though perhaps confusing, at first, the point is, in fact, the same in either case, though worded differently. The Maharshi Himself taught, on many recorded occasions, the same notion that the ego is not to be assaulted with passion, but rather simply ignored. If we like, we may combine the two languages and say that the ego, rather than being slain, is simply allowed to die as if by exposure to the elements.

We may liken the method to using the ego’s method against it, or even using the ego itself, against itself. Recall that the ego is simply the identification, “I”, with some object. Tracing it, bit by bit, back to its source, we gradually (or, in some quite extraordinary cases—such as that of the Maharshi Himself—all of a sudden) train our minds to identify “I” with higher and higher, or more and more inward, objects. Advaita-vāda gives these object-stages the title of “veils” or “sheathes” and names five of them: gross body, the vital body, the emotional mind, the rational mind, and the causal body. Most of us, most of the time, identify with some combination of the gross body, vital body, and emotional mind; the first goal, then, is to first realize that “I am not this body”, and so to loosen identification with the gross and vital bodies. Once this has occurred to some appreciable degree, we enter upon the task of identifying with the rational mind and its capacity to discriminate between truth and falsehood; this discriminative capacity of vijnana is aided greatly by dispassionate action (karma yoga), unitive devotion (bhakti yoga), and meditation on Scripture and teaching (nididhyāsana), along with exercise in mental concentration (dhyāna), all of these being methods of (among other important reasons for them all) opening one’s mind up to greater and greater clarity of intuition. In other words, the mind is itself purified and re-identified with Intellect.

All of these stages, in a sense, turn ego around on itself. They trick it into working for the proper Master, turning from one object-identification to another, subtler, one, thus “transcending” it; they rob it of its illegitimate force by simply ignoring its false authority and “allowing it to die”. They “slay” the ego with the sword of discrimination (between True and false), “drown” it in the Divine Ocean, and “cremate” it in the Fire of Truth. These are all different ways of expressing the same meaning by placing emphasis on a different part of the subjective experience of the process; at times, it is quite a painful process, and so we say that it is like death by fire; sometimes it is panic-inducing and stressful followed by subsidence, and then we call it drowning; yet again, we sometimes feel beset upon by our own emotions and thoughts, and then we call it combat, war, a duel; sometimes it is a calm subdual, and so we say that the ego has simply passed away in its sleep. And, yet, until the final curtain, in point of fact and in personal experience, the ego hangs on throughout (however submerged, scorched, or sliced up, at times) as both the lock and the key to the whole problem of wrong identification.

A Sincere Call for Responses

January 12, 2012 8 comments

ATTENTION: Religious and spiritual folks who read this blog, I have a question for you and I am very interested in your responses. This is more than idle curiosity, however, for it cuts to the core of both spirituality-as-such and of what I plan on studying in my return to college.

What is your response to (and/or explanation of) the strongly apparent necessity of the physical brain to metaphysical mind? Neuroscience more and more finds direct correlates between brain states and mental states; how does this affect you and your worldview? Do you have any particular religious and/or philosophical responses? In short, what does this seemingly causative relationship from “brain” to “mind” mean?

I have my own ideas, here, but I’m looking for the ideas of others. Please share!

Toward a Modern Gnostic Philosophy of Mind

The psyche (or soul, or mind; except where specifically noted, these three terms will be used interchangeably throughout this article) has an important place in spiritual practice. Nevertheless, the psyche is not identical to the spirit, Nous, Atman, Divine Spark, or essence of being. That being said, we must have a proper understanding of the psyche’s role in the process of spiritualization. To this end, a “philosophy of mind” is necessary, one which not only agrees with Gnosis, but which also takes into account the findings of modern neuroscience. Neuroscience is now seen as an enemy to religion, seeing as how the common assumption—even, or especially, among neuroscientists—is that contemporary studies of the brain have dismantled the very concept of a “mind” separate from the physical processes of the brain itself. This assumption, however, requires an overturn in light of new data, in light of quantum physics, and in light of Gnosis.

Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist David Hubel, quoted in Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s book The Mind & The Brain, said, “The word Mind is obsolete.” (pg 25) What he meant by this is that, based on the scientific investigations of the functions of the brain, every function formerly ascribed to the immaterial “mind” can now be seen as a function of the material brain. On the surface, this seems true to many people. However, materialism (or physicalism) is a metaphysical assumption; just as a person’s religious bias can blind him or her to evidence, so too can “irreligious” bias. Doctor Schwartz’s research, as well as the research of others (Mario Beauregard, Wilder Penfield, Henry Pierce Stapp, just to name a few), has demonstrated that there is “something” at work upon the brain, not merely in it. This “something” is what we call “the mind”.

The primary function of the mind appears to be that of volition; that is to say, the psyche makes choices between different possible brain-states. The contents of our everyday consciousness seems to be seated in the brain (as far as science can presently tell, anyway), but awareness of those contents is not. The question of the interplay between mind and brain, too, has found a resolution in the sciences, namely in physics. The Newtonian view of billiard ball atoms bouncing one into another into another and eventually producing “something” in the process has been overturned for a century, now, but has yet to find its way fully outside of the physics department. This is exactly the mechanism—fully, inescapably deterministic in nature—which many neuroscientists and “philosophers of mind” propose is at work in consciousness. Consciousness itself is, the claim goes, merely a “user illusion”, even an “interface error”, resulting from the functioning of the brain; consciousness thus has no essential reality apart from the brain, and really has no function as mind-brain causality runs in only one direction: the brain affects the mind, but not the other way around. However, this is clearly not the case. Something is causing the brain’s very physical structure (in macro scales, no less) to shift, however gradually, in response to the will (Jeffrey Schwartz’s “mental force”) being exerted upon it in, say, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, or even just the exertion required to resist biting one’s nails or tapping one’s foot. To simplify, “habits” are the functions of brain circuits, while “decisions” are the functions of mind.

None of this is to say that there is not a physical component to volition; there are regions of the brain which become more active during the exertion of will. However, this is a chicken-or-egg question, and there is strong physical evidence that a decision is made prior to the activation of those brain centers. For instance, electrical impulses move across the surface of the scalp in anticipation of such a volitional brain change measurably before the brain change occurs. None of this is a slam dunk, of course, but it makes quite clear that the question is, scientifically speaking, still wide open.

Thoughts, memories, and other mental events can be seen as the yoke which binds the mind and the brain together; without the contents of consciousness, there wouldn’t seem to be anything to choose from, at least not during normal states. The quantum processes (please see the work of Schwartz, Stapp, et al) which hold the mind to the brain carry these mental events up and down the chain. This constant subatomic flurry of activity is what permits the immaterial mind to choose between brain states; it also corresponds to what occultists know as the “etheric double” and the “silver cord” which links soul and body. In other words, these quantum activities form a constantly shifting matrix of information “between” the mind and the central nervous system.

Spiritual practice—within the Gnostic, Hermetic, and related frameworks—is a series of volitional events by which we choose where to place our attention and where to identify our”selves”. If we take the (maybe overused) image of an onion, we can roughly say that during our normal experiences, the body is the outermost layer, then the etheric double (see last paragraph) just underneath, then the psyche, then something else, and then the spirit or Nous (which, again, will be used interchangeably). The Nous is that with which the many and varied spiritual traditions identify the “true Self”; it is not merely the individual soul of mainline religion, as that is the psyche or mind of which we have been speaking. Instead, it is simultaneously individual and collective, immanent and radically transcendent, so far from our ordinary waking experiences that Buddhism, Gnosticism and Advaita Vedanta all use apophatic/negative language to describe it: it is not this, not that; cannot be compared to this, that or the other; cannot even be said to exist but certainly cannot be said not to exist; etc. When discussed at all, it is always discussed in paradoxical or non-literal poetic language of which we can make little or no sense rationally. And yet, the fact that it is so very weird to rational consciousness is itself a rational conclusion, for how could something more exotic than dark matter (because it is not a substance at all) be meaningfully put into the limited clothing of words, or even abstract mathematical formulae?

The spirit only begins as an abstraction; as our attention draws closer and closer to it, and as our consciousness gradually becomes truly aware of it, we actually find that we are it. In a sense, we have reversed the layer order of the onion: the physical body now rests within the mind, which itself rests within the Nous which is its archetype. Abstraction falls away, leaving an experience more concrete than anything we had experienced with our fingers and toes and eyes and ears and noses and tongues. This process requires grace, which is to say that the steps along the way are freely given by a force beyond our mere conscious minds; but the process still requires the participation of our psyches, because a gift given but not accepted is just a box with pretty wrapping paper, a decoration at best and an unasked-for burden at worst.

The participation of psyche in the whole process is, once again, the task of volition, the capacity to actively choose between two or more possibilities. For most of us, will begins as a weak thing—a squeaking grunt of effort against a door made of oak—but through various disciplines (yoga, contemplative prayer, theurgy, even magic) and through direct application (making oneself do chores on a hot, balmy day), we gradually build up our reserves (so to speak). Like a muscle regularly worked, the power of mental force grows bit by struggling bit. Luckily for those of us on the spiritual path, the mere practice of our regular disciplines of prayer, meditation, and the like, perform double duty: not only do they bring us into closer contact with Nous and Things Beyond, they also strengthen our will as we go.

In Gnosticism, we usually describe there being three “states of the soul”, and every person can be said to act from one of these. There are the hylics (materialists) who focus entirely on their bodies and on physical things and experiences; the psychics (soulish) who are said to be “in the Midst”, experiencing things primarily of the emotions, passions, and imaginations; and there are the pneumatics (spirituals) who experience things “from the top down”, so to speak, or from the perspective of the Nous. Hylics may become passionate or emotional,  but generally only over physical things; psychics may be intellectuals or have an aim to achieve spiritual things, but tend to be waylaid by their own literalism and zeal; pneumatics, however, have achieved what Buddhists and Hindus call “clear mind”, a mental state allowing for intellectual inquiry from a bird’s-eye-view, from which emotions, imaginal visions, and even purely material life all continue to exist but enter into an infinitely larger, more tightly interwoven context.

Now, it is my contention that these categories are not fixed destinies, but rather that they are states through which we can pass (in both directions, unfortunately). The ultimate goal, of course, is to achieve the pneumatic framework and stay there; here, the material life is not forgotten, but is put in its proper place, and likewise emotions do not dry up but rather take on their appropriate value, and all work in accordance with true Wisdom. And here is where volition comes in.

Psyche gets to choose where to aim attention throughout life. A hylic is a person who “looks down” more often than not, and even when the gaze turns upward it is usually momentary and immediately interpreted according to the individual’s understanding of purely physical events. “That feeling of oneness with something far greater than myself must have just been the sudden activation of certain neural circuits in my right hemisphere, involving the release of a specific shopping list of ‘feel good’ neurtransmitters, etc., all toward the end of greater environmental and social awareness and responsibility.” None of this is necessarily a bad thing, or entirely incorrect, but it is a narrow view.

A psychic is a person who primarily looks horizontally, at all of the wonderful thoughts and feelings floating around, the beautiful and horrible visions available, and the potential present and future realities which have not yet been actualized. The life of a psychic can be either irrationally optimistic (see New Age and New Thought movements for examples), or else overwrought with pessimism (see fundamentalist movements); either way, it is the passions which preside, and not the intellect. Once again, this is not to say that the intellect is nonexistent in a psychic, any less than the emotions are dead in a hylic; instead, it is a matter of which “layer” is used as the basis of interpretation. In the case of a psychic, literalism tends to hold sway, as their visions and emotions are not only taken quite seriously (which, in truth, they deserve to be), but are actually taken to be the greatest reality. The psyche, then, is the realm of the spirits of passion, the flowering of the elements, and the vengeful gods of the world; this realm of the Midst is not necessarily a place of evil, but is certainly one of illusions which can be used productively or which can become an ever-shifting maze in which a soul becomes lost.

A pneumatic is able to remain calm even in the Midst, to look upon things of the body and soul as the temporary ephemera that they are, and to apply a standard of intellectual rigor to all questions and experiences, not merely those within the purview of the material world. A pneumatic, then, is a person whose psyche has “looked Heavenward” and been rewarded by the true Beautific Vision beyond visions and become identified with the Nous. That last part is vital for understanding: the psyche identifies itself with the Nous; this act of identification is, of course, an act of will by which the psyche travels beyond itself and is taken into the archetype of which it is a reflection. And just as the psyche influences the brain by way of semi-material quantum effects, so too the Nous influences the psyche by way of a corresponding entanglement (the something else mentioned above in the onion analogy). And so, there is a multilayered, instantaneous interplay of influences constantly flitting through the whole economy of the individual human being. The psyche’s relationship to the Nous is that of a reflection to the original; the brain’s relationship to the psyche is a similar one. The process of spiritualization is that by which the psychic reflection is not only gradually made aware of its own reflective nature, but is also finally fully identified with that which it reflects; the brain, unfortunately, never has this sort of opportunity for enlightened immortality, but its job is to remain a healthy intermediary between the immaterial psyche and the material world, between the subjective and the objective.

Gnosis (or jnana, in Sanskrit) is the information, the practice, the gift, and the process by which this spiritualization occurs. Gnosis happens in so many ways and in so many layers, and comes from so many sources, that it is impossible for us to put all of the pieces together until we have made it quite a long way up the mountain. Still, if we don’t constantly try to revise our conscious, rational understanding, we are liable to lose our way altogether. Our ultimate goal, beyond even the process so far described, is beyond words (or, at least, beyond my words). So let the above, a whirlwind tour of my own philosophy of mind in relation to the Gnosis beyond space/time, be helpful to you in formulating your own understanding. I pray to God’s Sophia and the Divine Logos that I have at least succeeded in getting some gears turning (an analogy grown from the outdated clockwork model of consciousness!) for others, as my own continue to turn; as Gnostics, mystics, and theurgists, it is our right and responsibility to always keep the lights shining.

See Also:

Beauregard, Mario, & Denyse O’Leary. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Schwartz, M.D., Jeffrey M., & Sharon Begley. The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.

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The “Goodness” of Suffering

I am prompted to make my thoughts clear on this topic by a recent discussion, in which several people asserted that suffering could be, of itself, “good”.

I could not disagree with this point any more if I denied the very experience of suffering. The justification generally given is that suffering often acts as the impetus for efforts of self-development. This is true, certainly; any self-examination in an adult will prove it out in one’s own personal history. However, let us not make a mistake in logic! To say that we can bring something good out of suffering is not the same as saying that suffering itself is inherently good.

Consider an analogy: a camper is incautious and does not put out his fire before moving on. The fire spreads and rages, destroying acres and acres of forest, spreading across fields of dry grass and into areas populated by humans. Several people, not to mention the numerous animals and incredible numbers of trees, lose their lives, and thousands or millions of dollars in property damage on top of it all. But the burnt remnants of trees and plants fertilize the soil, allowing for the regrowth of the forest even more lush than before. And the fields that were burned now make for excellent farmland. So some benefit did come from it, in the long run! But was the fire, or the carelessness which caused it, or the drought conditions which allowed it to spread, or all of the death and destruction, good of itself? It would be a callous and unreflective soul who would answer in the affirmative.

It has been said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. This is true, insofar as pain is merely a physiological and/or emotional reaction to some stimulus, while suffering is the result of consciousness of that pain. In other words, pain is just something that “happens to” you, while suffering is something that you “do with” pain. A fish never asks, “Why me?!” And that, conscious awareness, is the key to the whole question.

The degree to which any given individual possesses the capacity for self-reflection is also the degree to which that individual may suffer. The more questions the individual can ask, the more he may suffer. But that does not reflect an inherent property of suffering as much as an inherent property of awareness. It is as the Buddha said: it is Mind that makes a heaven out of hell and a hell out of heaven. Suffering is, of itself, morally neutral. Causing suffering, however, is morally reprehensible. If suffering were inherently good, causing it would also be good, which would lead us into a moral and ethical black hole.

Now, it is also awareness, mind, Νους, which is capable of bringing good out of evil. In our present case, it is conscious reflection which may extract a lesson from the suffering. If I am not paying attention in the kitchen and I put my hand onto a hot stove, I will feel pain, and I will probably suffer by looking at my burn, thinking about how much it hurts, and asking how I could have been so stupid, but only if I take just a moment to consider just how, really, I could have been so stupid, can I learn how not to repeat it. Does that make the burn, or the fact of my consciousness of the pain, beneficial? No, but I might be smart enough to extract some small nugget of knowledge out of those things and avoid making the same mistake twice.

On a higher plane of thought, suffering as both experience and concept, in the broad scope of its reality, provides even more food for thought. I can begin to ask the questions, “Why does suffering exist?”, “Why do innocents suffer?”, and so forth. But the good which comes from this process is not the doing of suffering, but of my reflective and active mind. That is the good in the equation of suffering. Just as a hammer can be both a weapon and a tool, we each have some capacity to use our minds to create, preserve, and carry on cycles of suffering, or we can use them to alleviate and prevent suffering. The more we grow, the more we learn to direct our minds according to our higher will, the more good we can extract and unfold from the suffering which makes up so much of this world. We may learn to outsmart the devil and take from him his power, but that doesn’t make the devil our friend!

A Commentary Upon the Middle Pillar Exercise

Anybody familiar with the more traditional side of Western occultism has probably encountered the Middle Pillar Exercise (MPE). The Golden Dawn’s official papers placed little emphasis upon this (see Regardie, The G0lden Dawn, 6th edition, Llewellyn Publications), one of their finest and simplest technical methods, but Dr. Israel Regardie (and others) gave it the attention it deserves and expanded upon its essentials until the MPE alone comprised a fairly complete magic-mystical methodology. (See Regardie, The Middle Pillar, as well as his The Art of True Healing.)

The core practice is, for those with kabbalistic knowledge of even a very basic level, simplicity itself: the magician formulates the middle pillar of the Tree of Life diagram within her spirit, astral body, and etheric double, and then circulates the energy thus set in motion through and around all layers of her individual being. The core techniques are visualization and vibratory vocalization, both of which facilitate the awakening of the microcosmic Tree of Life, the linkage of same with its macrocosmic analogy, and the conscious manipulation of vital energy. (For the actual technical methods in full, see Regardie’s The Middle Pillar.)

The purpose of the basic Middle Pillar Exercise and its contingent circulations is not merely to become a willing and conscious channel for vital energy; this task can be accomplished much more simply and quickly with other methods. The primary function of the exercise is the conscious communion and eventual integration of the various levels of spiritual and psychic functioning. When approached from this angle, the MPE performs its duty admirably and becomes a magnificent training tool.

It is as well to remark at this point that the MPE seeks to draw the Ketheric Light, or Divine Light, from the macrocosm to the aspirant’s highest center of consciousness, then on down through successively lower phases and finally into mundane awareness. This scheme self-consciously differs substantially from most methods involving the chakras, wherein consciousness is raised from mundane awareness to the highest heights and “left hanging”, as it were, beyond the pale of this world. As Regardie pointed out in his The Middle Pillar,

In a word, the Western ideal is not to escape from the body but to become involved more and more in life, in order to experience it more adequately, and in order to obtain a mastery over it. The ideal is to bring down godhead so that one’s manhood being enriched may thereby be assumed into godhead. Always does this system begin from the real centre of working—the higher Genius which, by definition, is in contact eternally with whatever infinite deity there may be. (The Middle Pillar, second edition, by Israel Regardie, 1970 Llewellyn Publications, pg. 122)

In those systems based in Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Christian and even shamanic sources, everything must ultimately be brought back to Earth if it is to have any value.

There are numerous uses for even this most basic method aside from mystical attainment. Regardie himself used the Middle Pillar Exercise in therapy with his patients. He would use the vital energy so generated as an aid to massage, similar in spirit and technique to Reich’s orgone therapy, and would use the psycho-spiritual integrating power of the MPE while holding hands with this students and patients in order to influence their inner economies toward greater health and wholeness.

A number of outgrowths exist, as well, which expand upon and even complete the MPE. These include the addition of appropriate colors to the visualization, the formulation of the complete Tree of Life, the use of Archangelic names, and the Vibratory Formula of the Middle Pillar.

The basic form of the Middle Pillar Exercise uses only white light. Once the ritual has been mastered this way, the student is to visualize the Sephiroth in their appropriate colors. This practice enlivens the Sephiroth further, differentiating the Ketheric Light into its various phases of manifestation and bringing the spheres of Light into closer sympathy with their macrocosmic counterparts.

Once the basic exercise has been mastered with the specific colors, the student begins to work on enlivening the other two Pillars and their correspond Sephiroth. This can be done in several ways, but the one I recommend is as follows: on one day, add Chokmah in its gray color. The next day, add Binah in black, while maintaining Chokmah; add Gedulah the next day, then Geburah, and so on, in order, until the Tree is complete each time the exercise is performed.

To this scheme I would add that once Binah has been included, and ever after whenever more than just the Middle Pillar are employed during the MPE’s performance, the pseudo-Sephirah of Da’ath should be omitted. Da’ath is in actuality the lowest manifestation of Binah or, rather, Binah as “viewed from below.” When practicing the MPE using only the Middle Pillar itself, Da’ath serves as a vital link between Kether and Tiphareth, translating the Light of Kether across the Abyss (which itself only exists when viewed from lower phases of awareness) and into the realm of individual experience. Hence its name, Da’ath, which translates as “knowledge in English, indicating that it is the very human intellectual knowledge of Divine reality as opposed to the gnostic understanding of Binah proper. When Binah itself is recognized, Da’ath becomes redundant and even distracting.

At this point, the names of the Archangels may be added to the practice. They are simply vibrated after each Divine Name, otherwise carrying on just as before. It is important to note that when using only the Middle Pillar with the Archangelic names, the Archangel of Binah is to be employed for Da’ath, just as Da’ath shares Binah’s Name of God.

In theory, the student could eventually add the Angelic Choir and the Mundane Sphere of each Sephirah, and each magician is welcome so to experiment. In experience, though, this practice does not seem to add to the effectiveness of the MPE. Still, much can be gained through meditation on the associations of the Angelic Choirs and Mundane Spheres with the Sephiroth.

With time, it becomes possible to simply activate the sphere of Light itself in order to bring into effect the Divine Name, Archangelic power, Angelic Choir, and other associated powers. Even a rudimentary attainment herein can be a powerful experience. This complete microcosmic Tree of Life is known as the Body of Light (or Luminous Body), though this title is somewhat of a misnomer. It is not a body, but rather a psycho-spiritual garment of purity and protection identical to that which lies behind and empowers the magician’s ritual robe. In fact, the establishment of this Body of Light completely obviates the need for a robe in evocation and spheric magic.

The final phase of practice with the Middle Pillar Exercise is a mystical method of consciousness-raising that, when practiced in a methodical manner, amounts to a technique of self-initiation. Known as the Vibratory Formula of the Middle Pillar, this method is so simple yet so powerful. The initiate first performs the MPE itself. It is only necessary to work with the Middle Pillar. The side Pillars may be omitted, as this technique deals only with grades of consciousness; where the side Pillars are concerned with the magic powers, the Middle Pillar concerns only the levels of consciousness as such.

Once the MPE has been performed, and the circulations completed, the student intensely visualizes the Name of God pertaining to the Sephirah to be contacted, composed of appropriately colored flames or electricity, floating directly ahead of her. This Name is then breathed in using the technique of pore breathing (see Initiation Into Hermetics by Franz Bardon, 2001, Merkur), and condensed in the area of the solar plexus. It is then vibrated aloud and simultaneously projected outward to the ends of the universe, then imagined to speed back toward the initiate. At the moment of impact, she is to enter a state of mental vacancy and allow the energy of the Name, now empowered by the Supreme God beyond the Void, to integrate with her and affect her as It will.

A few points deserve attention. First of all, it is a good idea to work this method in a relatively open area with carpet, grass, or padding about. The Vibratory Formula can be very disconcerting and may well cause the student to stumble or fall, especially during the first few performances. No benefit is to be gained from smacking your head off of a wall or table!

It is also well to work up the Tree, from Malkuth to Kether inclusive, and in order, first, perhaps over the course of ten days, then to work back down from Kether to Malkuth over a similar period of time. This ensures that the initiate experiences the Tree in a balanced manner from the outset. Once the Vibratory Formula has been used to “ascend” and “descend” in this way, the initiate may return to the Names of God in any order she desires. Even so, it is to be suggested that she not work with any Sephirah or Sephiroth to the exclusion of the rest, and that work with any Sephirah on the side Pillars be followed up within a week by its opposite to maintain healthy equilibrium.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that traditionally the projection of the Name is accomplished with the Sign of Projection, while the mental quiescence as the Name “strikes home” is accomplished with the Sign of Silence (the two Neophyte grade signs of the Golden Dawn’s initiatory system). While these signs are effective for the Golden Dawn magician, there is no reason why others may not use similar signs and motions or simple visualization and energy work techniques from other systems.

All told, the Middle Pillar Exercise is among the finest of magico-mystical tools available to the beginning student of Hermetics and Kabbalah. It eventually becomes obsolete for intermediate to advanced practitioners, but can hold a central place in daily work for months to years, and serves to speed the student toward those heights in the meantime. I hope that these comments and applications provide some small help upon the path.

In Defense of the Ego

It is a certainty that the human ego causes much suffering in individual lives and in the world as a whole. Still, that is not altogether the fault of the ego itself.

Eastern mysticism in general, and those Western systems which have been derived from or heavily influenced by the East, has given the ego a very bad name. Today it is not at all uncommon to hear phrases like “ego-consciousness” and “egoic mind” in purely pejorative (and generally judgmental) tones. New Age and New Thought teachers place a lot of emphasis on “transcending” or even “dissolving” the individual ego. The ego is thus treated like a parasite, an obsessing entity with nothing positive to contribute.

All of this is poor psychology, and even worse spirituality. Looking askance upon the ego is a flat denial of the potential held within an entire segment of one’s own psyche.

It is true that the ego is not the core of one’s being, that place being held by the pure spirit or awareness. The ego is also not a malicious leech upon the soul. It is instead the entire conscious content of the soul, a more or less organized conglomerate of thoughts and emotions steeped in personal significance. It is the light-of-day counterpart to the personal unconscious (in the sense of Dr. Jung) and, as such, is our only means of directly integrating the insights which arise from our individual unconsciouses (which, in thier turn, descend from the individual mind and spirit “above”).

The ego is only dangerous when we mistake it for our individuality which is the spirit, or else when we forget that the ego is not even close to the soul’s totality. These are admittedly common errors, ones to which we are all prone for so lon gas we are incarnate and possessed of souls at all. That is not the fault of the ego itself, however, but more of a reflection of our current degree of mindfulness and our collective lack of appropriate education. Ego is neither the disease nor the symptom, only the victim of slander at the hands of largely semi-conscious beings lacking in the tools of self-understanding.

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