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

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Gems from the Forums V: The Astral Plane

Not too long ago, an inane discussion about astral projection on inspired me to consult Crowley’s classic "Notes for an Astral Atlas" from Magick in Theory and Practice, a text I haven’t read in many a year. Upon revisiting it, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of practical wisdom about discovering the True Will that was concealed in the language of “astral research.”
I wrote the following post in order to illustrate how Crowley’s writings on the astral reveal a method of practicing Thelema hidden beneath the “symbolic technicalities” of ritual magick, as Crowley plainly states in the introduction.

Read on for more.

For me, what’s fascinating about Crowley’s “Notes for an Astral Atlas” is not just the extent to which he is insistent on how irrelevant the “reality” of the Astral Plane is, though it’s worth putting some weight on that. This insistence is consistent with what he says everywhere else in his work about the *practice* and the *experience* being what matters, not the “reality” of any of this magical stuff.

Anyone who thinks that Crowley was advocating that people travel the astral or generate visions to “prove to themselves that it’s real” just isn’t carefully reading what the guy said.

But anyway, what’s so striking about “Notes” is additionally Crowley’s demands that people distinguish between reality and their imagination:

The Magician may go on for a long time being fooled and flattered by the Astrals that he has himself modified or manufactured. Their natural subservience to himself will please him, poor ape!

They will pretend to show him marvellous mysteries, pageants of beauty and wonder unspeakably splendid; he will incline to accept them as true, for the very reason that they are images of himself idealized by the imagination.

But his real progress will stop dead. These phantasms will prevent him from coming into contact with independent intelligences, from whom alone he can learn anything new.

He will become increasingly interested in himself, imagine himself to be attaining one initiation after another. His Ego will expand unchecked, till he seem to himself to have heaven at his feet. Yet all this will be nothing but his fool's face of Narcissus smirking up from the pool that will drown him.

Pretty damn emphatic, isn’t it? The dangers of “watching spiritual television” are clearly laid out.

Then we get this interesting comment:

Nothing is easier than to suggest visions, or to fashion phantasms to suit one's ideas. It is obviously impossible to communicate with an independent intelligence — the one real object of astral research — if one allows one's imagination to surround one with courtiers of one's own creation. If one expects one's visions to resemble those of the Master Therion, they are only too likely to do so; and if one's respect for Him induces one to accept such visions as authentic, one is being false to one's soul; the visions themselves will avenge it. The true Guide being gone, the seer will stray into a wilderness of terror where he is tricked and tortured; he will invoke his idol the Master Therion, and fashion in His image a frightful phantasm who will mock him in his misery, until his mind stagger and fall; and, Madness swooping upon his carrion, blast his eyes with the horror of seeing his Master dissolve into that appalling hallucination, the "Vision of THE DEMON CROWLEY!"[/quote] Emphasis in the original.

What’s curious is this word “independent.” Earlier in “Notes,” Crowley had answered the question of what “astral” or “spiritual” beings are by saying, “Man is one.” Shortly thereafter, he observes that everything can be considered part of the self (part of “Man”) but that it’s just more convenient to regard things as independent.

So what’s going on here, you ask? If Crowley acknowledges that nothing is necessarily a priori “independent” of man – and that even man is an “astral being” – how can he insist on “independent” communication from astral beings?

The answer is in not confusing the planes. When he says that nothing’s necessarily independent of a person, he’s talking in the most abstract, impractical, head-in-the-clouds, whoa-I’m-in-the-Matrix kind of philosophy. When he talks about distinguishing imagination from “independent intelligence” he’s talking about the everyday, practical matters of discourse that we deal with.

Now Crowley also says in the introduction to Magick in Theory and Practice (to which the “Notes” are an appendix):

“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.”

This discrimination between what you really are what you think you are (or what you’d like to think you are) is the heart of Thelema. It’s the absolute essence of what Thelema is all about, and the idea is everywhere in those extracts from “Notes” I quoted above: don’t get fooled into buying into your own hype, thinking that your “visions” are “initiating” you, or thinking that your fantasies about yourself are the truth, and – important for some people to hear – don’t be misled by the “demon Crowley.” That is to say, not only don’t expect your visions to be like Crowley’s, don’t make the mistake of aping Crowley’s beliefs and values and calling them your own (cough, a certain Mr.418 might want to review this lesson, cough). [Note: this is a reference to "Keith418," a Thelemic fascist who consistently confuses Crowley's individual values with Thelema itself and who incorrectly misunderstands Thelema to be a form of political morality]

Now, in the introduction to Magick, he says that all the “symbolic technicalities” of magick conceal ways to discriminate between the self and the imagination. This is important: it’s not that doing rituals makes you discover your true will -- though it might be useful in training your mind for doing so -- but rather it’s that the technicalities of these rituals symbolically conceal methods for doing this.

So what is all this “astral travel” stuff a symbol for?

The clue is right here: "It is obviously impossible to communicate with an independent intelligence — the one real object of astral research — if one allows one's imagination to surround one with courtiers of one's own creation."

The “one real object of astral research” – and indeed, the “one real object” of ALL magical practices in Crowley’s system – is “to communicate with an independent intelligence,” that “independent intelligence” being the True Self of the individual, which, from the perspective of the mind, appears to be Other.

What Crowley says here is exactly analogous to “discriminat[ing] between what he actually is, and what he has fondly imagined himself to be.” It suggests very strongly that this “astral travel” stuff can be viewed as a symbolic way of talking about this act of discrimination.

And hence, we get some real gems in here about how one can go about distinguishing the True Self from the false. Like this passage here:
The essence of the right sensation consists in recognition of the reality of the other Being. There will be as a rule some element of hostility, even when the reaction is sympathetic. One's "soul-mate" (even) is not thought of as oneself, at first contact.

One must therefore insist that any real appearance of the Astral Plane gives the sensation of meeting a stranger. One must accept it as independent, be it Archangel or Elf, and measure one's own reaction to it. One must learn from it, though one despise it; and love it, however one loathe it.

One must realize, on writing up the record, that the meeting has effected a definite change in oneself.

One must have known and felt something alien, and not merely tried on a new dress.

There must always be some slight pang of pain in a true Astral Vision; it hurts the Self to have to admit the existence of a not-Self; and it taxes the brain to register a new thought. This is true at the first touch, even when exaltation and stimulation result from the joy of making an agreeable contact.

Make no mistake: discovering the True Self and observing it is markedly different from observing the thoughts and imagination.
From the perspective of the mind, you have discovered something else, something that will effect a change in the way you live your life if you’re open to listening to it. It’s not a “spirit” or some sort of external being: it’s You, but it’s the Real You speaking from underneath all of the layers of crap in which your mind has covered it:

From Liber Aleph:

Give Ear, give Ear attentively; the Will is not lost; though it be buried beneath a life-old Midden of Repressions, for it persisteth vital within thee (is it not the true Motion of thine inmost Being?) and for all thy conscious Striving cometh forth by Night and by Stealth in Dream and Phantasy. Now is it naked and brilliant, now clothed in rich Robes of Symbol and Hieroglyph; but always travelleth it with thee upon thy Path, ready to acquaint thee with thy true Nature, if thou attend unto its Word, its Gesture, or its Show of Imagery.

And of course, Crowley concludes “Notes” by discoursing precisely about obtaining Knowledge and Conversation of the HGA (i.e. The True Self, which is an “independent intelligence” from the perspective of the mind, even though it’s entirely internal and psychological):

The Magician may therefore be confident that Spiritual Beings exist [note: and of course, Crowley defined “man” as a “spiritual” and “astral” being above], and seek the Knowledge and conversation of His own Holy Guardian Angel with the same ardour as that of FRATER PERDURABO when He abandoned all: love, wealth, rank, fame, to seek Him. Nay, this he must do or condemn himself to be torn asunder by the Maenads of his insensate impulses; he hath no safety save he himself be Bacchus! Bacchus, divine and human! Bacchus, begotten on Semele of Zeus, the adulterous Lord of Thunder ravishing, brutally, his virginal victim! Bacchus, babe hidden from hate in the most holy of holies, the secret of thy sire, in the Channel of the Star-Spate, Whereof one Serpent is thy soul! Bacchus, twy-formed, man-woman, Bacchus, whose innocence tames the Tiger, while yet thy horns drip blood upon thy mouth, and sharpen the merriment of wine to the madness of murder! Bacchus, Thy thyrsus oozes sap; thine ivy clings to it; thy Lion-skin slips from thy sleek shoulders, slips from thy lissome loins; drunk on delight of the godly grape, thou knowest no more the burden of the body and the vexation of the spirit.

Come, Bacchus, come thou hither, come out of the East; come out of the East, astride the Ass of Priapus! Come with thy revel of dancers and singers! Who followeth thee, forbearing to laugh and to leap? Come, in thy name Dionysus, that maidens be mated to God-head! Come, in thy name Iacchus, with thy mystical fan to winnow the air, each gust of thy Spirit inspiring our Soul, that we bear to thee Sons in Thine Image!

Verily and Amen! Let not the Magician forget for a single second what is his one sole business. His uninitiated "self" (as he absurdly thinks it) is a mob of wild women, hysterical from uncomprehended and unstated animal instinct; they will tear Pentheus, the merely human king who presumes to repress them, into mere shreds of flesh; his own mother, Nature, the first to claw at his windpipe! None but Bacchus, the Holy Guardian Angel, hath grace to be God to this riot of maniacs; he alone can transform the disorderly rabble into a pageant of harmonious movements, tune their hyaena howls to the symphony of a paean, and their reasonless rage to self-controlled rapture. It is this Angel whose nature is doubly double, that He may partake of every sacrament. He is at once a God who is drunken with the wine of earth, and the mammal who quaffs the Blood of God to purge him of mortality. He is a woman as he accepts all impulses, are they not His? He is a man to stamp Himself upon whatever would hallow itself to Him. He wields the Wand, with cone of pine and ivy tendrils; the Angel creates continually, wreathing His Will in clinging beauty, imperishably green.

The Tiger, the symbol of the brutal passions of man, gambols about its master's heels; and He bestrides the Ass of Priapus; he makes his sexual force carry him whither He wills to go.

This “mob of wild women” that comprise the uninitiated self may be thought of as analogous to the “Astrals that he has himself modified or manufactured,” from the earlier passage, his pleasing thoughts and conceptions of himself that will ultimately tear him to shreds or, to use the language from the earlier passage, drown him like Narcissus in a pool.

In other words, over and beyond the “make believe you’re talking to Elves while daydreaming in your bedroom” silliness of all this astral travel stuff, there is a serious side to it: a symbolic way of discussing the differences between imagination and True Self.


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