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

Monday, July 9, 2012

Gems from the Forums IV: A Crystal Clear Understanding

This is the last one of these “Gems” that will be posted for a little while. New content will be up on the blog in another day or two.

This entry consists of two posts made very recently in this thread in which a “Typhonian” named Chris asked the forumites for help in interpreting a nonsense word he received as a “communication” (that is, daydream).

When he posted later on in the thread with an additional “communication,” he correctly apologized for his posts not being “the most AC related thing.” Taking the opportunity to question him gently about how he thinks these “communications” are related to the True Will – or even whether he thought they were related – I quickly discovered that Chris was incapable of offering a coherent explanation of how his practice was supposed to work to reveal the True Will, why anyone would think that it would reveal the True Will, and what criteria he would use to judge that his practice actually was revealing the True Will.

This discovery prompted the following two posts from me about the necessity of interrogating one’s methods of practice.

Just so that we’re extra clear, I was never attempting to “say anything for certain” about Chris. I was asking him questions that I think are pretty basic to any kind of Work whatsoever, questions that he should be asking himself and that he should have solid answers to before doing the Work.

I mean, if someone was going to build a desk for me, I might ask him – before hiring him – “what methods are you going to use to build this desk? What will each step of that method accomplish? How do you judge (that is, by what specific criteria do you judge) that you have indeed attained each goal?”

Certainly, I would expect any carpenter to be able to give very specific and relatively simple answers to these questions. And it’s not that the carpenter has to “prove it to someone else cause I’m a big meanie skeptic!!!!!” but rather it’s the simple fact that a good carpenter has to answer these questions to himself, and if he can answer these questions to himself, then it would be child’s play to explain his answers to any objective inquirer. And if he finds himself incapable of explaining his answers to any objective inquirer, then it’s very likely that the answers he’s generated for himself are lacking in substance.

There’s no reason, a priori, to assume that a task like discovering the will shouldn’t require the same crystal clear understanding of the subject that any other task would require. In fact, there’s every reason that conclude that it should require just that: pretty much any process that any person does – from building a desk, to learning how to play an instrument, to learning how to discover and carry out the True Will – implicitly requires the person doing the task to have some theory – some mental map or model – about how the process works and how he or she judges that the process has worked, even if that person doesn’t consciously articulate the theory to himself or herself. The better and the clearer the understanding, the better the chances for success. And the more muddled the understanding, the worse the chances for success.

Here’s the thing, though; discovering the will differs from building a desk in a key way: in the latter activity, failure (when it occurs) is obvious because the criteria for success can be observed by anyone. However, in the former activity, failure (when it occurs) isn’t obvious at all because the criteria can only be observed by one person, necessarily. Hence, it is possible for an individual to delude himself or herself almost indefinitely.

As a result, for a task like discovering the will, it becomes *even more important* for the individual to have a crystal clear understanding of :

-Exactly what he or she is trying to accomplish
-How the chosen practices will enable him or her to accomplish those ends
-How he or she can specifically tell that the practices have worked to accomplish those ends

These points remain true for virtually any endeavor at all, and they remain true whether or not one’s outlook on the world is “humanist” or…whatever label we want to put on the position Michael contrasts with “humanist” above. Whether or not one believes there are “preterhuman intelligences” has no bearing on the fact that the questions I’m discussing are vitally necessary if one is serious about success in virtually any endeavor, whether one thinks that those endeavors involve preterhuman intelligences” or no.

We are, supposedly, interested in “the method of science,” are we not? If we are, then it is of vital importance that we develop very clear criteria for success, all the more important for the fact that our chosen subject of study (each individual’s own self) is very prone to misperceptions.

In the interest of advancing a serious technical discussion of the heart of Thelema (here on a website dedicated to the legacy of its creator, Aleister Crowley), I reiterate that I think analyzing “communications” – from whatever source – cannot be said to reveal information about an individual’s True Will. At the very best, such analysis would reveal something about how the individual’s mind connects certain concepts…which might be interesting to know, but would be close to useless in enabling the individual to perceive his will in real life situations and adjust his or her behavior accordingly.

I welcome cogent arguments against what I’ve just said, in favor of such practices.

I was, earlier in this thread, using Chris’ examples – which he freely volunteered – to illustrate this point, as he seems unable to articulate how linking concepts like “bending light, crooked, and magic” specifically helps him to discover his True Will. I know he says that he believes “eventually I can reach my True Will through the dissecting of these processes and thoughts,” but he doesn’t say why he thinks this or by what criteria he would determine that he has succeeded, and that was largely my point.

Now, I would be happy to steer the conversation away from the specific example of Chris, and I would be very interested if anyone at all – using any examples, from their own life or even hypothetical examples – could explain how such practices are supposed to work in the context of Thelema and (most importantly) how one can tell that they have indeed worked.

It occurs to me that in order to begin a discussion on an evaluation of Thelemic practices, I ought to offer my own answers to these questions.

Once more, the questions are:

1) What is the practitioner trying to accomplish?
2) How do the practices work to achieve this goal?
3) How does the practitioner *know* that the practices *do* achieve this goal, and by what *specific criteria* does the practitioner determine that the goal has been reached?

Below are my answers to these questions, illustrating only a handful of practices I employ:

What is the practitioner trying to accomplish?: The discovery of the True Will, defined as the individual’s nature (authentic inclinations and preferences) in contrast to the false ideas the individual has about his nature (such false ideas frequently involve the distorting tendencies of the mind, including “self image,” morality, ideals, “should” statements [supported by “because” statements…see AL II:27, and this post:], duty, and the expectations of others).

In short, Thelema defines the True Self (“Khabs”) as distinct from the mind/body complex (henceforth referred to as the “Khu”). This distinction is merely a model for labeling aspects of self that one can observe: the distinction is not an assertion of the existence of metaphysical realities. According to Thelema, the Khabs can possess inclinations that can be thwarted by the Khu, which has been produced by evolution to ensure survival, not necessarily happiness or “satisfaction” (the fulfillment of the individual’s true nature). Thus, the Khu tends to misperceive the universe (and the Khabs): these misperceptions are “distorting tendencies.” By distorting perceptions and thwarting the True Will, the Khu produces discomfort and suffering.

The goal of Thelema is to transfer the individual’s attention *away* from the Khu (and its thoughts of how the individual “should” act) and onto the Khabs (and the authentic inclinations of the individual).

How do the practices work to achieve this goal? The only way to accomplish this goal – by the definitions advanced above – is to train the mind to become aware of the ways that the Khu distorts impressions, particularly its impressions of the Khabs. After doing so, the individual can gradually become better at perceiving the Khabs/True Will in real time – free from the distorting tendencies of the mind – and adjust his or her behavior in real time.

“In real time” is an important phrase because, by definition, imagining one’s reactions to situations are part and parcel of the Khu, and the goal is to shift attention *away* from the Khu. One cannot, by definition, discover the True Will by thinking about it because the True Will comprises the natural inclinations of an individual in a given situation. An individual must, therefore, pay attention to his or her natural inclinations while in that given situation.

How one can tell that it works: The primary criteria for determining that one has discovered the True Will is that, over time, one’s sense of internal resistance and discomfort diminishes. This will necessarily be a subjective judgment, but one that most individuals are more than capable of making, particularly over long periods of time. People generally know when they are happy with their lives or not, and though they might make some mistake in the short term, an individual usually has a very good sense of whether he's overall satisfied on a day-to-day basis. It is often – though far from always – an unhappiness with their lives that prompts individuals to seek out “spiritual attainment” and such (though ironically, their unhappiness and their seeking for something outside of themselves is part and parcel of the Khu-illusion: as ever, the proper study of magick will teach them that their mind is playing them traitor).

To the end of discovering the True Will, a variety of practices are useful:

Meditation: The individual stills his or her mind and grows accustomed to perceiving reality without the influences of the conscious-mind overlay of the Khu.

How it works: This practice shows the individual “what it feels like” to perceive without the conscious-mind overlay of the Khu, which is useful to recall when attempting to pay attention to the will in real time. Persistence in the practice aids the individual in realizing, in daily life, the unreality of thoughts and assists him or her to better see through the thoughts (and their distorting influences) in real time.

How one can tell that it works: Success in meditation is judged by perceiving without thoughts, and – when recording the number of “breaks” (the return of thought) – discovering that the number increases in the short term but gradually decreases over time (even though it probably will never vanish entirely). Many practitioners report trance states achieved by this practice, but such trances are side effects, not goals or indications of success.

Divination: The individual uses a completely random set of symbols – such as a tarot spread – to “read” events of his or her life.

How it works: By applying a randomly-generated set of symbols (with more or less objective meanings) to one’s life-situations, one can realize other ways of looking at one’s situation. Frequently, one tends to view situations in set ways, dictated by the mind’s thought patterns (overlays of the Khu). By exposing oneself to different ways of interpreting the situation – inspired by a random symbol-set – one can learn the limitations of one’s mind and begin to cultivate broader ways of thinking about situations.

How one can tell that it works: Success in divination yields, over time, a recognition of the mind’s limitations. One will find oneself saying, “Oh, there’s my mind thinking there’s a need to confront this person. My mind always thinks that’s the primary option. But like I learned in those four divinations I did last month, there are many other valid methods of response…this might be one of those times.”

Resh: The individual acknowledges the sun’s cycles at various points in the day.

How it works: Resh forces the individual to become more aware of the real world that exists outside of his or her thoughts. By focusing on real things that move in regular cycles, the individual gradually impresses upon his or her mind the reality of the physical world and the relative unreality of the world of thoughts. Thus, the individual can become more adept at seeing through those thoughts. Further, the ritual impresses upon the individual the permanence of the sun beneath the illusions of the earth’s cycle (and thus impresses upon his mind the analogy of the permanence of the Self beneath the illusions of the mind’s cycles).

How one can tell that it works: One finds the thoughts turning with greater frequency toward the Sun – aware of where it is in the sky, how long until the next performance of Resh, of the permanence of this heavenly body. One should also find one’s thoughts getting broader, perceiving so-called “problems” from “The Point of View of the Sun” (i.e. recognizing that the mind has problems but that from the perspective of the Sun and the Universe – not to mention the True Self – these “problems” are really just instances of the mind labeling aspects of reality and getting fooled by attributing “reality” to its labels).

The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram: The individual performs a ritual that involves imagining expansion into the universe and balancing the “elements.”

How it works: The LBRP impresses upon the individual’s mind the goal of the Great Work – expansion past the limiting sphere of the mind and the cleansing and equilibration of the “elements” of one’s Self – and generates a mindset conducive to achieving this goal. By expanding outward into the Body of Nuit, the individual identifies with Her Cosmic Indifference to his or her relatively insignificant life on earth. By “banishing” the elements, the individual impresses upon the mind the necessity of removing the obstacles that prevent the perception of the True Will, and by “invoking” the archangels, the individual builds those elements back upon stronger: Air (the ability to perceive), Fire (the True Will), Water (the direction of that Will toward its proper objects), and Earth (the combination of all of the above, producing a trajectory through the world). The ritual acknowledges that these elements spring from a common source (The True Self, spirit, quintessence, the center of the circle) and that even this common source emerges from the forces of the universe (represented by the hexagram). Thus, 5 (the individual) equals 6 (the macrocosm).

How one can tell that it works: Successful performances of the LBRP are typically marked by a feeling of “cleanliness,” both in the area in which the ritual is performed and (more important) in the “aura” of the magician (i.e. one’s sense of self in daily life). This feeling is almost always relaxing and refreshing, and the ritual can be done simply for its own sake, to enjoy these feelings. One should find that routine performance causes the thoughts to drift back to the process of discovering and carrying out the True Will represented by the elements in the ritual. Keeping in mind the Great Work constantly reminds the individual of the task and can help “lift” the individual out of the prison of his or her mind during daily life.

Anyway, I can go on and on and on and on about various practices and specifically indicate how they work and how one can tell that they work.
The point of all of the above is, by the way, not that I think “everyone should use my criteria! Because I’m a big ol’ meanie non-believer, and I think there’s only one way to do things, and I want to impose “my reality” on everyone!”

Not at all.

The point is one that we all know from our daily lives: *anyone* who wants to achieve a goal of any sort has to have – at the minimum – an understanding of what his goal is, how his chosen practices are supposed to help him reach that goal, how he knows that his practices actually do what he believes that they do, and by what criteria he can tell that the practices have worked. This is true from the simplest tasks (exercising and losing weight, for example), to the most complicated tasks (obtaining a PhD in a chosen subject).

Now obviously, no one is under any kind of obligation to respond to me, but this is a discussion board, you know, and I think it would be a fruitful discussion to hear from other practitioners and to hear their answers to these same questions I’ve just spent this post answering.

As I've said, I don't think "communications" -- of the kind that began this thread -- are capable of revealing information about the True Self or True Will, and I'd be interested is someone could explain how such practice is supposed to work and how one can tell that it actually does, in fact, work.

Those of you playing at home, by the way, might just want to take a stab at answering the above questions for yourself, about your own practices. You [note: "you" is being used in a general sense here, meaning "those people who want to do this for themselves"] should, of course, get in the habit of training yourself to ruthlessly attack your own answers. If you are unable to come up with solid answers – answers that could stand up to rigorous scrutiny by any fair-minded observer – if you are unable to explain exactly what you are trying to do (and how you know you're successful) to any fair-minded person, then that is an indication that, in all likelihood, you don’t have a good grasp on what you are trying to do. As a result, your chances of success are somewhere approaching zero.


  1. thanks Los, you've helped prompt me to evaluate my own practices, my expectations of their consequences and necessary success criteria. Also, you may want to edit this post as there are references in the text which don't make sense now that it has been extricated from the forum.

  2. Very nice post, Los. I caught the first part of this on lashtal, but the second part (with concrete examples right out of the occultist's repertoire) is awesome.

    When you said: "The better and the clearer the understanding, the better the chances for success. And the more muddled the understanding, the worse the chances for success," my first thought about a POSSIBLE exception is the desire for a "spoiler-free" experience when experiencing a new work of art. I've seen similar thoughts expressed about initiation rituals: i.e., they're claimed to work best if one's mind (both conscious and subconscious) is fully surprised by what happens.

    I wonder if many occultists use a similar type of spoiler-avoidance argument to avoid thinking too much about the reasons and processes behind their practices. I've sometimes had the nagging worry that bringing topic X too clearly into my conscious "foreground" may rob my subconscious of the ability to properly "work on it" behind the scenes. There are hints of this kind of idea in Crowley's Liber Samekh, I think.

  3. William Thirteen writes: “thanks Los, you've helped prompt me to evaluate my own practices, my expectations of their consequences and necessary success criteria.”

    You’re most welcome.

    “Also, you may want to edit this post as there are references in the text which don't make sense now that it has been extricated from the forum.”

    Yeah, I just threw the posts up here. I guess it would be useful to go back and at least make those parts more comprehensible, but I think that task is going on the list of “to do’s that probably won’t get done.”

  4. Part 1

    Cygnus writes: “When you said: "The better and the clearer the understanding, the better the chances for success. And the more muddled the understanding, the worse the chances for success," my first thought about a POSSIBLE exception is the desire for a "spoiler-free" experience when experiencing a new work of art.”

    Well, keep in mind that my post is about performing a procedure that has a practical goal, not about enjoying entertainment or obtaining aesthetic fulfillment.

    I totally agree that someone who, for example, reads a book or sees a movie may want to avoid spoilers. Often, this is for reasons of enjoyment, but it can also be for reasons of interpretation as well: viewing a work of art “cold,” as it were, gives the viewer the opportunity to explore those parts of the experience built into the work of art by its creator. The best-known examples of this are movies with a “twist” in the plot: the movie is designed to produce surprise and confusion at certain points – often mirroring the emotions of the characters on-screen to give viewers a similar feeling – and undergoing that surprise firsthand makes for a more powerful experience and could potentially be useful in interpreting the movie after the fact.

    The same is true of those initiation rituals you mention, by the way. A ritual, all by itself, isn’t going to make a person attain, but studying the lessons contained in the ritual could be valuable or conducive to attainment, as could participation in future performances of these rituals. That’s why the OTO has “study guides” for all the initiation rituals and classes on them, too: the real benefit is to be had from studying them and applying them in life.

    The surprise-factor is – just like in those movies – something that could enhance the initial experience and could prove useful in interpreting them.

  5. Part 2

    “I wonder if many occultists use a similar type of spoiler-avoidance argument to avoid thinking too much about the reasons and processes behind their practices. I've sometimes had the nagging worry that bringing topic X too clearly into my conscious "foreground" may rob my subconscious of the ability to properly "work on it" behind the scenes.”

    There’s something similar to this idea of “avoid[ing] thinking too much” in two “magical” situations I can think of.

    The first is the notion of letting go or “enflam[ing] thyself with prayer.” At the moment of the performance of most operations, you have to drop all this thinking stuff and throw yourself into it. Invocation is a great example of this. You can’t properly invoke Venus, for example, if the whole time you’re thinking, “OK…here I go…identifying with those aspects of me that have to do with Love so that I can become more cognizant of those aspects of my personality in daily life…I’m really doing it…I’m suspending my disbelief…I know Venus isn’t real, but I’m using the power of my mind to imagine that I’m Venus…here I go…I’m really doing it….”

    You just can’t do that. Your invocation will not be successful unless you just (temporarily) drop all of this thinking stuff and *throw* yourself into it, whole-heartedly. Now, sure, the thinking absolutely does come before and after the invocation, and you’d be an utter fool to go around “invoking” things without a clear idea of what you’re doing and why, but when it comes down to actually doing it, this skepticism stuff has to go out the window for a bit.

    This especially goes for the most important invocation, that of the Holy Guardian Angel. Invoke often.

    The second situation involves “experimenting” with some of these practices. That is to say, one might, for instance, vibrate some of the “barbarous names of evocation” – without reading the translations – just to see what kind of feelings they produce or what associations they conjure. One might try an invoking ritual of the pentagram in one element – without speculating too much about what the effects might be – just to see what feelings it produces. Or one might draw a tarot card (without looking at it) and “astrally project” into it and see if one can get it right (or at least summon up some of the associations on it). Or one might have a partner invoke one of the enochian aethyrs – without telling the seer which aethyr – and see what happens. Etc., etc.

    In any of these examples, the “experiment” would be ruined by speculating too much about what the result could be or reading other people’s experiences (because they might unintentionally color one’s own experience).

    And that’s all well and good, in terms of occultism and investigating one’s own mind, but (1) those aren’t specifically Thelemic practices (they’re not practices designed to help one discover the True Will, so one doesn’t need a working model of True Will to engage in them), and (2) someone engaging in those kinds of experiments implicitly *does* have an idea of what they’re trying to accomplish: to just see what happens, if anything.

    And that’s all perfectly fine, but no one’s going to discover their True Will by watching the equivalent of spiritual television. Trances and states of consciousness and experiments are fun and all, but at the end of the day, they’re really just recreation of some sort. For someone interested in discovering the Will, I think an understanding of what you’re trying to do is essential.

  6. Final Part

    “There are hints of this kind of idea in Crowley's Liber Samekh, I think.”

    There’s definitely a sense abandoning one’s normal self and *throwing* oneself into the performance (which is essential for success), but anyone who uses any kind of practice like Samekh (or Abramelin, etc.) is only going to be aided by having a crystal clear understanding of what he’s attempting to do, why he would think his practice does accomplish what he’s attempting to do, and how he can tell that it’s worked.

    And when we read Samekh, we find exactly that: Crowley’s explanation of what the ritual is supposed to do, why it works, and what success looks like. Again, the actual *performance* of it requires the aspirant to turn off thought, but everything leading up to the performance and following the performance *needs* a lot of careful thought. Why do you think Crowley provides a translation of those “barbarous names” and a detailed explication of what the ritual is supposed to do? Or why do you think he says, in the Star Ruby, that the “enumeration” of its words has significance? There is an expectation that a student will study these rituals.

    Assuming that the subconscious’ “working” on these problems is desirable – which might be a pretty big assumption, depending on what you mean by “subconscious” – I think that consciously studying these rituals might provoke the subconscious to “work” even harder on them.

    Was there something specific from Samekh that you had in mind?

    1. You caught the parts that I was thinking about. Thanks for unpacking it in such detail.

  7. While I’m thinking of it, I might as well make one more point (and just for the sake of clarity, this point isn’t directed at any person in particular): my comments above take for granted – for the sake of discussion – that these rituals really do “what it says on the tin.” And while it’s useful to grant that assumption in order to write what I wrote above, it’s also important to thoroughly interrogate that assumption as well.

    Now true, unlike a lot of occultists, Crowley actually gave interesting and internally-consistent explanations for what these rituals are supposed to do, which is to his credit, but we’d be making an error to conclude that the rituals therefore necessarily do what he said.

    We have to at least be willing to accept the possibility – the very strong possibility, from what I can tell – that (many of? most of?) these rituals are frequently overly-elaborate and largely inefficient ways of training the mind to assist with the relatively simple task of observing the self.

    At the end of the day, this ceremonial stuff is *fun* and *enjoyable* to some people, and if that’s as far as it goes, fine, as long as we don’t get too carried away. To some people – me, for example – this kind of stuff can be pressed into service of a greater task, like discovering the True Will, but it’s only going to be useful insofar as we can make it work toward that goal (that is, understanding clearly how it fits).

    The problem arises when people believe – baselessly, more or less on faith – that these practices can *cause* individuals to discover their True Will. Or aid people in discovering the True Will by some unspecified means that they can never articulate when pressed.

    I get the sense that people often do these rituals just because they think this is what they’re “supposed” to do. All the books say do the LBRP every day, so they do. Crowley says here’s a ritual to do X, so they do it. Some dude says something like, here’s a way to contact spirits that are really a part of you because everything is a part of yourself, so by communing with them you can reintegrate parts of your personality that you’ve disowned and can thereby make yourself whole….and people just believe that shit! Apparently just because!

    It’s really shocking how much of “occult practice” is just people mindlessly repeating practices that they’ve been *told* will cause them to attain, somehow. And of course they experience “results” from these practices because the human mind is highly suggestible and the imagination is an incredibly powerful tool, but as I say above, what these practices frequently boil down to are nothing more than watching spiritual TV. What’s needed is an intelligent practice, a clear comprehension of what we're trying to achieve, how, and why.