Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

A Brief Defense of Religion: The Double-Standard Argument

Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?

The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”

Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.

Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.

It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.

The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.

Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.

The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.

To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?

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 Rock and a Hard Place: Politics & Spiritual Commitment

I seem always to be caught in a bit of a bind as far as ideological commitments go. On the one hand, I am a religious Traditionalist which, assumptions have it, ought to incline me toward social and economic Conservatism; on the other hand, I am a political Liberal. “Liberal” is, in my case, certainly not to say “secularist” as I am far from convinced that non-spiritual values can in any way serve as a firm foundation for an authentically ethical society.

I recently made known in a social medium my enjoyment of David Berlinski’s latest book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, an amusing and well-argued dismantling of the “new atheist” movement’s claim to scientific objectivity. I purchased, read, and enjoyed most of the book before discovering that Berlinski is a senior fellow of the conservative “intelligent design” think-tank “The Discovery Institute”, and his friendship with neo-con talking head—and professional bigot—Ann Coulter. Well, this just illustrates my point. I still agree with much of what Berlinski writes in The Devil’s Delusion. As long as he and I stay away from politics, we could have a rather fruitful friendship.

Yes, I am a religious Traditionalist or, to use my preferred terminology, a Perennialist. I see something inherently, even absolutely (in the “relative-absolute” sense of Schuon), valuable in the sacramental forms of the world’s great Revelations—a category, I hasten to clarify, which is not limited to the three major Abrahamic monotheisms. Somehow, though, my moral obligations within this framework have gone askew of those of many of my cohort. Or, just maybe, theirs have gone quite seriously askew.

Modern Conservatism has gone off to the impossible geography of the land of Ayn Rand-and-some-few-selective-readings-of-Leviticus-and-Paul and left us (not to mention Jesus) in a dust cloud wondering what the hell happened. Politics, at its best and at its core, is not a matter merely of convenient policy-making, nor of unscrupulous deal-making; an authentic political system is moral to its very soul, and is thus founded on the moral assumptions of those who create and recreate it. This being the case, the Conservative fairy-tale becomes, like an unvarnished Grimm story, quite disturbing: we see a narrative of blood and tears, God’s Justice and Mercy belonging only to a select few supermen who have managed effectively to invent a god in their own image. (“[S]o also in this world people make gods and worship what they have created. It would be more fitting for gods to worship people.” The Gospel of Philip) This free-market-god is a total inversion of the God spoken of by the Prophets and God-men; he is not the God of the Logos but, if the expression will be forgiven, the god worshiped by the devils and archons. But what more should we expect of the Age of Iron?

It is certainly not practical to enforce the same scheme individually and locally as on a very large national scale, and this is sometimes the excuse given (when any is proffered at all) by the more thoughtful among this sort of history- and doctrine-ignoring neo-Conservative for their extremely un-Christ-like political and economic ideals. The extremes to which this excuse is stretched, however, make a veritable non sequitur of what would ordinarily be a common-sense observation. Local and individual charity, whether helping people with their chores, donating blankets to homeless shelters, setting up a soup kitchen in your church, or whatever it happens to be, is absolutely vital, andall charity—in the sense of the biblical Virtue—manifests first and necessarily out of the individual’s deepest commitments. But there is no magical ring-pass-not at which, suddenly!, spontaneously!, Mercy must give way entirely to Justice and our judgments of people who are not ourselves need kick in at their very harshest. We may need to soften certain personal moral requirements in order to relate them to society—pacifism being a good example—but that is not the same thing as abandoning them as irrelevant at a certain numerical threshold of living human bodies, land measurement, or—most damning of all—dollar value.

Religion not only does not demand of us that we turn the unfortunate, diseased, orphaned, widowed, or even just irresponsible, out to the unkind elements, it outright condemns any such tendency inherent in earthly human nature. And let us not be coy on this point: “original sin”, at least in the sense of selfishness and schadenfreude within the human psyche, is an observable phenomenon whether or not we choose to attribute it to a primordial event or simply to a naturalistic evolution. To accept fiscal conservatism, then, is simply togive in entirely to the “fallenness” of the world.

Social conservatism is equally problematic, despite the seeming strength of the “religious” argument in favor of it. As fiscal conservatism turns people materially out into the cold, social conservatism does so psychologically and spiritually. If fiscal conservatism casually (or gleefully, as in the case of Ron Paul supporters) condemns people to disease and death from exposure or starvation, social conservatism forces them to despair and the brink of suicide. Combine the two, and you have a kenomic cocktail—a samsaric Screwdriver, if you will—of which Old Scratch himself would be proud.

Let us take the social-argument-du jour—homosexuality—as our example. And, let us say for the sake of argument that homosexuality is, in fact, sinful by its very nature. Well! How does it differ in kind from the sort of sex which produces children? Christianity, to mention the religion most commonly seen as vocally opposed to any sort of “gay civil rights”, has no traditional claim to a positive view of either reproduction or heterosexual sex-as-such. The idea that Christianity is all about “family values” is an entirely modern development, and one quite at odds with its theological and ethical roots. This is not to say that Jesus was totally anti-family, but He certainly taught that family is of secondary importance (at best!) when compared to our deeper (that is to say, non-biolgically-dependent) commitments. The body, in Christianity, is not to be intentionally harmed, but is also not meant to be venerated; what is family, really, but a biological commitment? Family is very important, biologically, but what makes members of one’s family morally and spiritually important is not the shared DNA, but the brute fact of their humanity. If we happen to share values and interests with them, more’s the better! So, it is hard to make a case for homosexual sex being significantly worse than heterosexual sex. What needs to be placed front and center in both cases is simply this: human love is a lower-order analogy (in the esoteric sense of the word) to Divine Love and, at its best, sex is a specific flowering of love (vide traditional—non-fundamentalist—Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish teachings about sex). And this flows nicely into the other common “Christian” argument made in favor of homophobia: It just isn’t natural!

An “argument from nature” can hold no water with a Christian for the simple fact that “nature” is fallen. Nature is not morally evil, so let’s not be throwing any “world-hating Gnostic” accusations around, here, but it is broken and flawed from the perspective of the relative-absolute (which is to say, the personal God to whom most religions turn when they pray). So, while it is possible to draw metaphysical/esoteric/symbolic conclusions from Nature-as-Scripture, this is a process of higher-order epistemic sublation, of intellectual adequation, or of out-and-out Revelation; it does not follow from this essentially intellectual-intuitive process that nature-as-form is completely good and, thus, useful as a standard of moral guidance. If that were the case, we would have ample examples to follow in eating our own babies, or at least just taking craps wherever we happen to be when we feel the urge. In other words, moral arguments-from-nature simply do not hold in the Christian mind (when that mind is sincere and well-informed, that is). This is all, of course, leaving well aside the fact that homosexuality and bisexuality are quite well-attested and frequently observed in the natural world. If arguments-from-nature do not work in the puerile “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” intellectual miscarriage, they cannot work the other way round, either.

What are most important in both arguments are the points of Love and of Humanity as Archetypes, as platonic Ideals. Whether or not homosexuality is a sin (to return to my initial assumption in service to the greater point), it is nevertheless an infinitely greater sin to assume that we are then in a position to devalue the central humanity and love which is being expressed by it. If it is incumbent upon me to not be gay, well, I’ve already succeeded; but it is in any case far more pressing that I stop caring so much about who a person loves and care more about Love Itself.

The Revelations place great, not to say exclusive, emphasis on morality. This is in part because we are fallen; we require, to some extent, rules to abide by. That is, until we are more fully able to live from the Real—that which is not and cannot be touched by the Fall, by samsara, by kenoma—at which point, morality falls away not because it is wrong within its own limits, but because the Love which lies at the heart of Justice-oriented morality may live through us more spontaneously. The law is transcended by the Law; the spiritual Torah floats above the written Torah. In just such a way, our own psychic narrowness must give way, sooner rather than later, to God’s Fullness.

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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!

Book: “Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction” by Eliot Deutsch

December 28, 2011 1 comment

I just started reading Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction by Eliot Deutsch. Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This book kept popping-up in my shopping trips, as well as in various bibliographies and the like, so I finally ordered a copy (along with two jars of Branston Pickle, because doesn’t want me to ever leave my house again). It just came in today, and I’ve started my usual pre-read skimming, and just finished reading the preface.

The subject is of particular interest for me, as I have spent a lot of time over the past several years pondering similar philosophical problems in relation to Gnosticism, Christian mysticism, and Hermeticism. The author’s main objective—one which I stand behind on principle—is a reconstruction of Advaita-as-philosophical-school according to a modern Westerner’s view of universal philosophical problems. How does Advaita address “problems” such as God’s existence and nature, the nature of consciousness and unconsciousness (or, more precisely, nonconsciousness), karma and morality, experiential (direct) and observational & studied (indirect) epistemology, and so forth.

As up-my-alley as this book seems, I must say that I’m somewhat skeptical of the author’s ability (really anybody’s ability) to fully deconstruct the cultural and historical context of Advaita in order to put it clearly in view of the broad strokes of Western philosophy. I certainly intend on giving Deutsch enough of the benefit of the doubt to read the book and see how much I can learn from it, but “religious systems” and “spiritual philosophies” (for lack of more precise terms) more than not defy this sort of deconstruction-and-reconstruction; please accept as evidence the utter failure of so-called “Neopaganism” to produce a viable path of spiritual growth. (Apparent examples to the contrary are almost always practicing some combination of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hermetic methods with a light dusting of Neopagan terminology on top, leading an astute observer to the realization that they would be much better off dropping the Neopagan trappings altogether and devoting themselves to that which is of real worth in their systems.) Deutsch’s approach remains to be seen by this reader, though, so he could very well still surprise me.

Evaluation of Magic Revisited

I have written previously on the limitations of magic within the context of the spiritual quest. At the time, I saw that article as a necessary rebuttal of a common view in Western occultism that somehow magic and spiritual practice (mysticism, in a very specific sense) are identical or “two sides of the same coin.” This is flatly false; magic is not authentically “spiritual” insofar as magic has no capacity to bring us into direct contact with the Reality behind the physical, astral, and mental planes. The belief that it can is largely the result of a misunderstanding of the levels of being. Broadly speaking, the great teachers of humanity have felt quite comfortable in referring to all planes of existence (as defined and explored by occultism, rAja yoga, etc.) as being “material” in nature, even if the constituting matter of any given plane is quite subtle compared to physical matter. I maintain the position of that article, as do all of the great Masters who have come before us. We ignore their experience out of our own ignorance (or arrogance), and at our own peril.

That said, there is an equally problematic position which places magic firmly within “the devil’s camp”, or else denies it any spiritual utility at all. Indeed, magic has a potentially important role to play in the continuum of human striving toward the Light. Magic has at least served us as a tool of survival in the inhospitable reaches of the natural world, but today it maintains relevance as a very human, cultured, yet ineradicably primal link between ourselves and those forces of Nature which can serve as foundations, or even propellants, along the Way.

Let me begin this discussion in earnest by defining some very useful terms: rAja yoga; bhakti yoga; karma yoga; j~nAna yoga; theurgy; and, finally, magic. (Note that the strange spellings of the Sanskrit words are intentional; please see the Wikipedia article on ITRANS for more information. ITRANS is a method of representing Sanskrit and other Indian language scripts in ASCII in a more phonetically accurate manner than a lot of more plain transliterations provide.)

rAja yoga is what most occultists in the West think of when the term “yoga” is used. The term can be translated as “royal yoga” or “royal union”. Yoga, generally, is any disciplined practice the goal of which is to attain “union” with the Divine. The various physical yogas are only preparations for and aids to rAja yoga, traditionally speaking, and are said to possess little to no spiritual value outside of that context. It is from rAja yoga that we get the idea of the seven chakras, the various energy channels, etc. The central discipline of rAja yoga is simply mental concentration; every other facet of rAja yoga develops somehow out of concentration. This is quite similar to authentic esoteric practice in the West, as well. Disciplined training in concentration comes first, and only after some degree of mastery has been gained in it will a teacher move the student on to other things. Even the so-called “siddhis” or “occult powers” cannot be gained except through concentration. So, it should be clear that the capacity for concentration is of paramount importance, whether a person’s interest is in mere psychism, or in the actual spiritual pursuit. Nevertheless, even rAja yoga cannot reach the pinnacle of spiritual attainment; instead, it serves as a preparation, and one can either get “stuck” in it, or else learn its lessons and move forward.

bhakti yoga, or “devotional union”, is rather distasteful to most Western occultists, but is still considered to be a vital preparation for the highest spiritual goals. bhakti essentially consists of some form of intense, earnest religious practice; it ultimately matters little which religion this is, as long as its focus is towards the Highest God of both law and mercy, beyond wrath and jealousy. Thus, the devotees of Christ-as-Logos kneel in awe alongside devotees of Ishvara/Siva, and the cultus of the Holy Mother in many cultures. This is not to say that there is no difference between these religious practices, or even their conception of God, but that the results are ultimately the same. bhakti yoga develops in the adherent a sense of honest humility, which eventually blossoms into the knowledge that it is not I who act but God who acts through me or, rather, that “I” and “God” are not as distinct as we are generally taught. It is the very “emptying-out” of self and “giving over” of one’s power (which is really God’s to begin with) to God which make Western occultists wrinkle up their noses in derision, much to their own detriment. (Note that Aleister Crowley wrote a truly awful essay on the practice of bhakti yoga based on his profound misinterpretation of it; I cannot recommend his essay for a proper understanding of bhakti because of his cynical, utilitarian approach to all things spiritual.)

This same “giving over” of one’s power, sense of self-will, and so forth, constitute karma yoga. Without going too deeply right now into the concept of karma, karma yoga can be translated as “action union”. This yoga is equally vital as a preparation; bhakti and karma practice generally grow with one another. It should be clear how karma yoga can grow out of bhakti yoga, and vice versa. The practice of karma yoga is simply dropping the sense of being “the doer”. This generally begins by first doing away with attachment to the “fruits of action” (karmaphala), realizing that once you have performed an action the results of it are out of your hands. Eventually, this practice itself fructifies into the realization that it was never “I” who “did” anything in the first place.

Both bhakti yoga and karma yoga serve to gradually undermine the sense of “I” (as in the limited little ego), which helps to make way for j~nAna yoga. j~nAna yoga, like the authentic practice of gnosis here in the West, is a process of enquiry, meditation, discernment and intuition which bring about insight. It is translated as “wisdom union”. While it is true that all of the preceding methods are essentially preparations for j~nAna yoga, that is not to say that they all lose their meaning the moment a person begins to practice j~nAna; no, many j~nAna practitioners remain bhaktis throughout, and it is quite impossible for them to give up karma yoga in any case. bhakti yoga, in a purely pragmatic sense, helps the j~nAni to maintain the “humility in wisdom” for which the Christian theurgist prays, but beyond even that pragmatism, a spiritual eye ever upturned towards God is what ultimately allows our minds to give in to the Reality of God. That said, j~nAna is definitely the most “advanced” of them, insofar as it requires a mind purified by the processes of bhakti yoga and a discriminating faculty honed to a fine edge by karma yoga. Yes, intuition will sometimes spontaneously “flash” before this point, but we cannot truly rely on it until we are capable of dispassionately observing intuition and “feeding” it with appropriate intellectual and devotional materials, and in any case it will not be reliably active until the ego-mind is quieted down.

I use all of these Sanskrit terms found in Hindu (and, to a certain extent, Buddhist) teachings because they are useful organizational categories for various practices which generally fall under the heading of “spiritual”. In other words, these four yogas—rAja, bhakti, karma, & j~nAna—differentiate quite nicely between the authentically spiritual (the trinity of bhakti, kamra, & j~nAna) and the purely psychic (rAja). With this information in hand, we can move back to the topic of magic.

In Hermetism, we largely split magic into two broad categories: magic proper, and theurgy. The difference between them is subtle but important.

A powerful example of theurgy is the Eucharistic Mass found in the Sacramental Churches, such as the Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and most Gnostic churches. The other sacraments and sacramentals are also theurgic in nature, as are many prayer practices such as the rosary and the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope. Of course, many of the practitioners of these methods, whether priests or congregants, would not recognize the word “theurgy” to describe them, but that’s what it comes down to.

The word “theurgy” translates roughly to “God-work”. Theurgic practice slots quite snugly into the category of bhakti yoga, insofar as it is a primarily devotional art, and because it acknowledges at the outset that it is not the practitioner him- or herself who brings about the results but rather it is God, and the practitioner is simply a tool or channel for that influence. The rituals of theurgy serve to “clear” or “broaden” that channel in the same way that Hindu bhakti yoga breaks down the personal, egoic barriers which keep the yogi from channeling the Divine Light. The differences in the types of theurgy are largely a function of who they are supposed to benefit. The Mass, and similar religious rituals, are theurgic in nature but serve a much larger number of people, at least in principle: a Mass performed by somebody with both the training and authority to do so not only sheds Grace upon (awakens Grace within) the priest him- or herself, but also upon the entire present congregation, and even out into the surrounding neighborhood. There are also “private” group theurgic practices, such as those found in theurgic lodges, healing circles, prayer groups, and so forth, which serve the needs of the members of the group and perhaps anybody else who is “linked” to their theurgic practice, such as those who ask the group to perform a healing for them, etc. Finally, there are private, solitary theurgic practices, such as praying the rosary or prayer rope, or performing a solitary theurgic ritual in one’s bedroom or home oratory (an oratory being similar to a combined “home shrine” and “meditation room”).

Naturally, this sort of devotional work, when practiced in an authentically devotional spirit, not only serves to bring about Grace-results (“miracles”) in the outside world, but also to connect the practitioners, beneficiaries, and parishioners with Grace within for the sake of their spiritual awakening; it also serves, just as with bhakti yoga, to gradually sever the sense of “I-as-doer”, leading into karma yoga, wherein the individual begins to more and more identify him- or her”self” as being only an instrument of the True Reality in the form of God.

Magic-proper is generally not so concerned with the emptying-out of self, but rather with the strengthening of it. All it takes is the close reading of any given manual of ritual magic to see this. The “exalted experiences” of ritual and ceremonial magic generally consist of contacting a being of the mental plane, because magic cannot truly reach beyond the manifest planes. However, there have been and still are magical practices and practitioners who find that the tools at their disposal, whether so-called “high ritual magic” or “low folk magic” (the latter generally working more consistently than the former anyway, despite the “high” and “low” designations) need not be the tools of the ego.

I have known ritual magicians, for instance within the Golden Dawn tradition, who understood that their magic was best used as an expression of Divine Grace rather than as a grasping for personal power. They are uncommon, but such individuals can be found. Within folk magic, it is much more common. The Pennsylvania Dutch methods of Braucherei are a personal favorite of mine for the deeply-ingrained devotion to God inherent in them which cannot be stripped away; if the bhakti is removed from the Brauche, the Brauche ceases to be. A prayer-charm with which I am familiar in the tradition of the Braucherei says that, “Dei Hand und mei Hand iss Gottes Hand.” That is, “My hand and your hand are God’s Hand.” (For those who are familiar with German, the form of the language spoken by the Pennsylvania “Dutch” is a bit different, due to a primary root in continental “low German”, contact with other Germanic languages such as Dutch, and the process of change inherent in having been settled in a non-German-speaking locale for multiple generations. See C. R. Bilardi’s The Red Church and his bibliography for more information.)

Has, then, the practice of Braucherei, the previously mentioned Golden Dawn magicians, and others like them, transformed their “magic” into “theurgy”? In a very real sense, yes. While they may not be practicing within any of the traditions which refer to their practices as being specifically “theurgic”, their intent is clearly as theurgic as those of any Martinist. They act for God, from God, and through God to achieve Godly ends. And while the healing of a damaged limb, or the removal of a curse from milk cows may not be specifically spiritual results, unlike with the “mere magic” of the egoic practitioner, the magic of the Braucher serves as a finger pointing to the Moon: the Braucher’s eyes are turned toward God and her magic turns the eyes of her patient Heavenward as well.

That, then, is the value of magic along the spiritual path. It is not flippantly that Draja Mickaharic has written that,

Being a magician is a stage in the process of developing spiritually. It is not the height of development; in fact, it is only a step in the first part of the range of real human development. the fact that many religious sects speak and act harshly against those who have the ability to practice magic is most revealing of the true character of the leaders heading those religions. Those whom they speak against may be more developed spiritually than the so-called religious people who speak against them! (Draja Mickaharic, Practice of Magic, page iiiv from the Introduction)

So magic is a stage of human development, and a potentially very important one for the people who have to pass through it. Even for many those who have passed beyond it, magic still remains a useful tool in guiding others and in aiding an ailing world. Dedicated to God, magic turns our gaze upward and inward; dedicated to self, magic solidifies and increases our suffering.

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!