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

Monday, June 13, 2011

Skeptical of the True Will?

It seems odd that anyone would want to reduce Thelema – the philosophy that holds an individual’s nature, as opposed to arbitrary rules, should be the only guide of conduct – to a position of faith, thus making it indistinguishable from any ridiculous supernatural claim.
Yet this is precisely the position of many supernaturalist Thelemites, who cannot fathom that something like the existence of a true will might be demonstrated as true (which, of course, begs the question of why they would ever choose to adopt a position that they don’t think can be demonstrated to be true).
One poster at phrased the position like this:
I'm intrigued as to the correct skeptical approach as laid out [on Thelema and Skepticism] to the claim "I have a True Will". Many 'rationalists' (a majority?) would consider this to be just as suspect as "I just met a real demon" or "Reincarnation is real".
What this poster is saying is basically that he doesn’t think that the idea of the true will can stand up to skeptical scrutiny; thus there is no evidence to convince anyone that there is such a thing as a true will; thus there is no reason for anyone to believe that it exists; thus believing in the true will is purely a matter of faith – as much as any religious claim is –  and thus Thelema is utterly and completely indistinguishable from any run-of-the-mill wacko religious claim and no one has a legitimate reason to be a Thelemite, any more than they have a legitimate reason to be a Hare Krishna.
Obviously, the above position is totally incorrect, and it is the intention of this blog post to demonstrate how to apply skepticism to the claim “I have a True Will.”
In the first place, we need to define our terms. Otherwise, we won’t have the foggiest idea of what we’re supposed to be applying skepticism to. Aleister Crowley, the creator of Thelema, defines True Will in this way in his work Magick in Theory and Practice (and, for ease of typing, I am often going to be mostly referring to “True Will” as simply “will” for the remainder of this post. Unless otherwise specified, “will” is being used as a synonym for “True Will”):
Every man and every woman has a course, depending partly on the self, and partly on the environment which is natural and necessary for each.
Thus, will is the natural course of action for an individual, the fulfillment of that individual’s natural preferences and inclinations. It is the course of action most satisfying to that individual.

On the face of it, there’s nothing there for us to be skeptical about – the claim that each individual has a set of inclinations and preferences is completely uncontroversial and ordinary and known to everyone.
In fact, when we put it this way, the idea of will seems silly. Doesn’t everyone just always do what they’re inclined to do and what they prefer, given the circumstances? If that’s the case, then why even bother to invent new terminology?
The point of Crowley’s definition then emerges as he continues:

Anyone who is forced from his own course, either through not understanding himself, or through external opposition, comes into conflict with the order of the Universe, and suffers accordingly.
Crowley thus defines true will as a course of action that an individual can deviate from, and a key way that an individual can deviate from the path of the will is through a failure to understand the self. This deviation results in suffering, inner conflict, and unhappiness, and these consequences can easily be observed by virtually anyone who pays attention to the events of his or her life.
In other words, “True Will” isn’t a metaphysical “thing” that exists on some other plane of existence, floating in the ether. Rather, it is part of a model of self and behavior that was created to provide a framework for real, observable problems that people experience and to provide potential solutions for these real, observable problems.
Anyone who has any remote kind of insight into themselves should be able to recall moments in their life when they took action based on a false idea they had of themselves or their environment and produced, as a result, dissatisfaction and internal conflict.
And if you’ve never encountered such a situation, then you apparently have no need to practice Thelema, so it’s been nice having you as a reader.
Crowley gives an illustration to clarify the point he’s making:
A man may think it is his duty to act in a certain way, through having made a fancy picture of himself, instead of investigating his actual nature. For example, a woman may make herself miserable for life by thinking that she prefers love to social consideration, or vice versa. One woman may stay with an unsympathetic husband when she would really be happy in an attic with a lover, while another may fool herself into a romantic elopement when her only pleasures are those of presiding over fashionable functions. Again, a boy's instinct may tell him to go to sea, while his parents insist on his becoming a doctor. In such a case he will be both unsuccessful and unhappy in medicine.
In other words, it is possible that an individual can form a mistaken impression of himself or herself and act according to that mistaken impression – and corresponding ideas of “duty” or morality, ideas of how the self should ideally be acting – instead of acting according to his actual inclinations and how the self actually wants to act.
What is striking about all of the above is how ordinary and commonplace the “True Will” is sounding. These are the sorts of problems that people encounter every single day: “Should I do X, or should I do Y? Should I value love over social consideration or vice versa?”
The Thelemic model of the self explains more fully how the deviation from the will occurs and how it is possible to correct it. This model, like all models, is a system of labels that we put on real, actually-existing things for the convenience of description. Freud, for example, famously came up with a model of the self in which he divided the real stuff of the mind into id, ego, and superego. Those three labels are, essentially, ways to talk about something that’s there, something that all normal, healthy individuals experience.
Thelema uses a different set of labels and divides the self into the Khabs and the Khu. These are Egyptian terms roughly meaning “star” (as in “Every man and every woman is a star,” AL I:3) and “spirit,” respectively. They are used to designate the real individual – the  “True Self” – and the mental and physical aspects that the self possesses, which, according to this model, most people mistakenly identify as the self.
The basic idea of the model is this: The “Khabs” is the individual, with all of its inclinations and preferences, which is also an integral part of the totality of existence. Thus connected to the totality, the individual would be unable to perceive itself as separate from the universe – and thus have no experience at all – unless it has a mind by which it can divide the flux of existence into “things,” discriminate between these things, and consider itself separate from everything else. This mind and sense of separateness is called the “Khu,” and it is responsible for the existence of thoughts, feelings, emotions, imagination, basic instincts, unconscious neuroses, a self-image, and virtually everthing that we normally call the “self.”
According to Thelema, this Khu “veils” the nature of the individual from himself by causing a misapprehension of that nature, a misapprehension of the environment (and how that nature is best fitted for it), and a fixation on the images generated by the mind (which include a faulty self-image and arbitrary rules for behavior, such as “I should do X”).
In other words, while the Khu makes possible experience and (at least the appearance of) free will, it also comes at the price of convincing the individual that it is the real self and that its phantasms are the self, rather than tools of the self.
All normal minds function in this way. As discussed in previous posts, the mind tends to perceive the universe – including the actual individual – as operating in ways that the mind either expects or desires. As such, the picture it produces of both the universe and the individual are very likely to diverge from the actual state of things (in some cases, the divergence is extreme).
To return to the question of skepticism, the existence of the actual things we’re labeling Khabs and Khu can be easily perceived by anyone with the slightest aptitude for this kind of work: a few minutes a day of simple meditation exercises to still the mind will reveal that when the mind quiets down, there is clearly still a self there that one can perceive, a self that has inclinations and preferences that are distinct from thoughts, ideas, feelings, emotions, and mental images.
It is no use to protest, “But…but…you can’t demonstrate this to anyone but yourself! Doesn’t that contradict your whole skepticism scheme, you mean old ‘rationalist’ lover of little boxed-in science?” The fact is that there are a host of claims that pertain to the self that only the self can verify. The question of demonstrating a claim to any impartial observer in controlled conditions is only an issue for claims that pertain to the world outside of a single individual.
So, for instance, the claim “I am hungry right now” is a claim that only one person in the universe could be expected to be able to acquire sufficient evidence for. However, unlike claims about the external world – such as, “I met a real, honest-to-goodness demon” or “Aliens send me messages through tea leaves” or “Reincarnation happens” – claims about one’s own self can be verified by one’s own observation of that self.
Of course, as I’ve just noted, one’s ability to observe the self is often hampered by the limitations of the mind, and the purpose of Thelemic practice is to improve an individual’s ability to perceive the self clearly. We might say that proper Thelemic practice encourages one to practice skepticism and apply it to the mind’s claims about the self in order to determine which of the mind’s ideas about the self arise from the mind.
As Crowley himself notes, again from the introduction to Magick in Theory and Practice:
The sincere student will discover, behind the symbolic technicalities of this book, a practical method of making himself a Magician. The processes described will enable him to discriminate between what he actually is, and what he has fondly imagined himself to be. He must behold his soul in all its awful nakedness, he must not fear to look on that appalling actuality. He must discard the gaudy garments with which his shame has screened him; he must accept the fact that nothing can make him anything but what he is. He may lie to himself, drug himself, hide himself; but he is always there. Magick will teach him that his mind is playing him traitor. It is as if a man were told that tailors' fashion-plates were the canon of human beauty, so that he tried to make himself formless and featureless like them, and shuddered with horror at the idea of Holbein making a portrait of him. Magick will show him the beauty and majesty of the self which he has tried to suppress and disguise. (emphasis added)
Here we see Crowley reinforcing the same point that this blog post has been making: that the mind can and does mislead the self and that the purpose of magick is – “behind the symbolic technicalities,” of course – to allow the individual to “discriminate between what he actually is, and what he has fondly imagined himself to be.”
Again, it must be emphasized that what Crowley is presenting is a model of the functioning of the self. The Book of the Law – the founding document of Thelema – indicates the relationship of the elements of this model:

          8. The Khabs is in the Khu, not the Khu in the Khabs.
          9. Worship then the Khabs, and behold my light shed over you!

These verses inform the reader that the “goal” of the system – the Khabs – is within what is usually called “the self.” Thus, Thelema is precisely the opposite of “old aeon” systems of attainment (Christianity being an obvious example), in which the goal of the system is to transform the self into something that it is not. In Thelema, the goal is to look past those elements that mislead perception and “worship” – that is, identify with – the actual self, the Khabs, the inclinations and preferences that underlie what most people call “the self.”
In other words, Thelema involves not an attainment, in the traditional sense, but a kind of “de-attainment.” One does not attain to a new state or become something different than what one actually is: one sees through the illusion of the mind and lives according to one’s nature.
What does this actually, practically mean? There’s nothing remotely occult or supernatural about any of this. To use one of the illustrations that Crowley used: the woman who thinks she prefers love to social functions will has essentially talked herself into believing that there she “should” prefer love for some reason – either because she’s convinced that it’s her “place” as a woman, because she’s always been taught to value love above all else, or any other reason.
If this individual were to practice Thelema, she would train herself to be more perceptive – using a variety of techniques including meditation, mindfulness in daily life, simple ritual, divination, etc. – and perceive her self as she interacts with the environment. She would begin by observing her dissatisfaction while engaged in her romantic relationships and come to identify her self image (as a woman who prefers love to all else) as a false idea that arises in the mind. In order to do this, of course, she would have to have familiarized herself with the way that her particular mind works to distort impressions.
She would then, on the basis of her observation of the self, draw tentative conclusions as to what actions might please her self better and put her self into a different situation that may be more satisfying. Upon entering this different situation, she would observe the self again, ever wary and skeptical of the tricks of her mind. If it was more to the liking of her self, she would continue; if she found her self frustrated still, she would repeat the process and place herself in a different situation. This process would continue for the rest of her life, and our aspiring Thelemite would most likely find, over a long period of time, that her overall frustration will decrease significantly and that there will be fewer and fewer times that radical changes will have to be made.
To put it in slightly different terms, this individual’s dissatisfaction arose because her mind assumed it was in control, rather than a mere tool of the self. As such, it began making decisions based upon its own ideas, rather than the nature of the self it belongs to. Attainment reverses this process by “piercing the veils” of the Khu and allowing the individual to perceive – and act according to – her true nature, of which the mind is a dutiful and faithful servant.
It is almost certainly not possible to “know” the will in the sense of coming up with a definite statement of the will to guide action. Observing the will is not a “rational” process, but the process of discovering it (as "discovering," in its etymology means dis-covering, to remove the covering from) involves an application of skepticism toward the claims of the mind in tandem with the process of observing the will. One discovers the will by observing it, acting, and continuing to observe. The mind participates in the process by drawing tentative conclusions and adopting a consistently skeptical attitude toward these conclusions.
Thus, we see that the idea that “true will” is some extraordinary claim is fantastically false and that it is, in fact, part of a model of self and behavior that allows a Thelemite to conceptualize and address the parts of the self. Application of this model requires the development of skepticism, self-criticism, and the ability to evaluate claims, particularly the claims made about the self by the mind.
Further Reading: A more in-depth exploration of the concepts touched upon in this entry can be found in Erwin Hessle's essays True Will and The Khabs is in the Khu, to which I direct interested readers who wish to learn more.


  1. many thanks for this post Los! This sort of material is quite useful to me, having returned to Thelema after many years in the wilderness, and now find myself attempting to reconcile its terminology with the deeper understanding of myself and universe gained during my wanderings. Timely as well, as I've needed to review the Khabs & Khu concepts to deepen my appreciation of Liber Resh.

  2. You're welcome, William. Glad you found it useful.

    If you're practicing Liber Resh, you'll likely find Erwin's essay on that ritual very informative, and a nice continuation from the ideas discussed here:

  3. indeed, Erwin's essay made for a stimulating read and reinforces of my experiences thus far with Liber Resh. The consistent turning of attention back to, and identification with "that which remains" exerts a subtle influence which seems to "loosen the veils"...