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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Winter Solstice

To Winter (by William Blake)

`O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs,
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.'
He hears me not, but o'er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain'd, sheathèd
In ribbèd steel; I dare not lift mine eyes,
For he hath rear'd his sceptre o'er the world.

Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o'er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.
He takes his seat upon the cliffs,--the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch, that deal'st
With storms!--till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driv'n yelling to his caves beneath mount Hecla.

Yes, I realize this is more than a week late. What can I say? It was a busy “holiday season”
This poem of Blake’s differs immediately from “To Autumn” in that there are no enjambments between stanzas. Each of the four stanzas exists as its own unit, cut off and isolated from the others by full stops. This is what we would naturally expect in a poem about winter, the season attributed to the north and to earth – which, in its lowest aspect signifies, among other things, the creation of distinct entities by the mind’s separation of the flux of existence (cf. the Thelemic concept of the Khabs and the Khu and how, according to Thelemic metaphysics, the Khu creates this separation, enabling experience but also creating the tendency of the mind to misperceive reality, including the True Will, thus necessitating the practice of Thelema).
Yet each stanza contains at least one enjambment, many of them quite deep: the form of the poem suggests that beneath that separation into distinct entities, there is an underlying unity, a degree of interdependency.

One has to be careful with ideas like these. They too easily descend into vague, unhelpful platitudes like. “We’re, like, really all ‘one,’ man.” As Erwin Hessle reminds us, “unity” is just as much an illusion as “separateness”: the insight of mystical experience is not that one has discovered the “truth,” but rather that one has discovered a different perspective, one that can be very useful indeed. [It should also go without saying – though it sadly does not, usually – that “interdependence” carries with it no moral implications. We might say that predators and prey in nature are “interdependent” upon one another, but that doesn’t preclude them from acting in accord with their natures and producing conflict]
As I argued in my essays on the LBRP and the Star Ruby, the element of earth, though represented in the Old Aeon as the element of darkness – and death, and the winter, and the material world conceived of as “evil” – is actually an element of light and joy in the New Aeon. In the New Aeon, we understand that “darkness” is an illusion created by the rotation of the earth, that the sun continues to shine on the other side of the world (and within ourselves, metaphorically, as our True Will), that the material world is not cut off from the spirit but that it is the spirit in a very real way. Thelema does not posit a spirituality cut off from materiality, any more than it posits a materiality cut off from spirituality. Thus the events of one’s life, one’s path through the physical, material world, is created by the True Will, is a bright path illuminated by light (though it can be perceived as cut-off from the world – lonely, and dark – when the fog of the mind grows thick).

Students are advised to study the Ace of Disks in the tarot, and Crowley’s commentary thereupon (particularly regarding the identity of Sol and Terra).

With these ideas in mind, we are in a better position to understand Blake’s “To Winter” from a Thelemic perspective, and its formal combination of separate stanzas containing deep enjambments. The very form of the poem performs the way that Winter (the earth, the physical world, the regular events of one’s life, the north) can appear barren, in which entities are disconnected, but in fact contains within it – for those who know how to look – the interconnection represented by the joy of Sun.
The first line of the poem is a syntactically-complete sentence, a command to Winter, but it ends in a colon, a mark of punctuation that throws forward the emphasis. That colon both arrests the motion of the stanza and propels it, in exactly the way that the element of earth can both signify the solidification of the individual into a “separate” ego at odds with the world and can also act – when seen rightly – as a gateway to an understanding of the physical world as a paradise in which the boundaries between self and other are understood as arbitrary distinctions drawn by the mind/Khu.

Unlike “To Autumn,” which consisted of the anticipation of Autumn, the performance of his song, and his departure, “To Winter” features a stanza of commands to the season – set off by quotation marks – followed by the speaker lamenting (as if in an aside) that Winter cannot hear him. The speaker perceives no meaningful connection here. He describes Winter in its most monstrous aspects and anticipates the season’s eventual overthrow and his retreat below “Mount Hecla,” an Icelandic volcano mentioned in Thompson’s famous poem The Seasons, which Blake clearly has in mind in these mini season poems.
In other words, the speaker exists in a state of isolation, cut off from the rewarding experience of the sun, perceiving Winter as nothing more than a monster (and the description of Winter echoes what will later become in Blake’s corpus “Urizen,” the tyrannical god modeled on Jehovah, the rational faculty when it has usurped control of the human).

Like the speaker of many of the Songs of Experience, the speaker of “To Winter” cannot see past his limited perspective, but the form in which the poem is written enables us to discern that the situation is more complicated than the speaker can realize. We do not have to wait until the overthrow of Winter but can exult and enjoy the materiality of this – and all seasons – with which our bodies and minds are inexorably bound.
As Winter comes upon us, let us reflect that the days are starting to grow longer, that the sun never really goes anywhere, that there is a constant, neverending source of light, love, liberty, and light that is always available to those capable of shifting the focus of the mind.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Believers Say the Darndest Things: Pray Until Something Happens!

Here’s a short and sweet one, just in time for the holidays.

Religious believers of all sorts have no problem interpreting the regular happenstance of life as acts of Divine Providence. And when coincidences happen – which they inevitably do – believers sometimes read them as interventions of some kind of spiritual agency. And when the coincidence involves their *desire* for something to happen and that desire being fulfilled, then they start attributing power to their desire-announcing rituals, like prayer.
As two of the rotating co-hosts on the excellent public access call-in show The Atheist Experience have recently discussed, the phenomenon of prayer (at least in the Christian tradition) can often be summed up in the maxim, “Pray until something happens”: watch it here

That’s right – the approach if the religious is that if you want something or if you have a problem, pray for your desire and/or a resolution of the problem. And if nothing happens, then keep praying, and this time have more faith. And be sure to interpret anything at all as a sign of divine intervention.
Tracie Harris has also given a fantastic demonstration of how this works through the rolling of dice: by focusing only on “hits,” religious believers can make it seem (in their own minds, at least) as if their prayers are having some kind of effect on reality. [See her presentation here, which is really excellent. She starts by showing how “transcendent” is indistinguishable from “non-existent,” and she goes on to show how believers can talk themselves into thinking that prayer “works” by focusing on hits. Somewhere in part two of her presentation, I think, she and Matt give an excellent example of prayer “working” (Paraphrasing: “Give me a 5!” “It’s a 2” “Ooh, I was thinking of a 2 first! Maybe the dice heard my thoughts and gave me that result!”]

What does this have to do with Thelema? Well, as I’ve said before, a great number of Thelemites seem to practice not Thelema but a Thelema-inspired religion based on a misreading of Crowley’s writings, disinformation presented to them by people who don’t have much more knowledge, crap gleaned from various “spiritual” sources, and their own fevered imaginations.
Allen Greenfield made an excellent point upon his resignation from the OTO a few years ago. He wrote that the OTO "tends to attract to its ranks spiritually disaffected people [...] Many of these people are sincere, but they came to OTO alienated from a particular superstition, not from superstitious values per se."

Now, Greenfield is writing specifically about the OTO there, but I think his comments apply very much to Thelema as a whole. Thelema has become a kind of alternative superstition, rather than an alternative *to* superstition. I attribute part of the problem to a lack of skepticism and critical thinking: people get fed up with traditional religions, realize that they're bullshit, but they don't fully grasp why they're bullshit. They still keep the same patterns of magical thinking alive. So when they discover Thelema, they bring their old magical thinking patterns to their "new" religion -- actually to the pseudo-Thelemic religion that they misinterpret from Crowley's texts
We can see the manifestation of the religious mindset and magical thinking in various believer scripts that appear in Thelemic discussions.

For example, the bizarre attitude of “pray until something happens,” described at the top of this post, pops up from time to time in various places on Thelemic forums. A fairly funny manifestation of it appeared the other day on everyone’s favorite fruitcake factory, The Temple of Thelema Forums, where one confused young man posted the following, in a thread he titled “Simple Archangel Magick.” Ah, yes. Nothing like simple archangel magick. Don’t you just hate that complicated Archangel magick that puts a damper on your holidays? It turns out that what he means by “simple” is “identical to religious prayer”:

I read about this technique in Sonia Choquette's ASK YOUR GUIDES, The trad 4 Archangels as seen in LRBP with 3 others Remiel , Raguel and Sariel can be invoked any time any place to work magick to effect change upon your Malkuth by merely understanding their properties and repeating their name mentally or in a whisper rhythmically in a mantra e.g. Mik-a-el Mik-a-el in between each breath. You "download" your particular trouble to them and voila time.

one example is cited concerning a Chicago public school and Raguel the Archangelic policemen who keeps the others in order was downloaded upon by a young stressed out school teacher whio couldn't cope with the rowdy scallywags in her class. It was making her life hell. All weekend she invoked Raguel and downloaded this particular concern to Him and on Monday morning the head master told her that the school has been targeted by the city to be first in an experiment in classroom restructuring and voila all of the troublemakers where taken out of her class

There’s a lot that’s hysterical here, from citing the work of a New Age crackpot, to anecdotal accounts of (not even) coincidence being described as prayer “working” (a class is full of troublemakers and the school does something about them…what are the odds, eh?), to capitalizing the H on a pronoun used to describe the angel in question.

It should go without saying that whenever anyone has a problem, of any sort, one of three things is going to happen in the near future:

1) The problem is going to get better.
2) The problem is going to get worse.

3) The problem is going to stay the same.

And believers have answers ready for each one!

1) If the problem gets better, then they’ll say, it worked! Magick works!
2) If the problem gets worse, then they’ll say, well, the magick made something happen but not in the way you expected! Maybe you have a karmic debt that needs to work itself out, and your magick unintentionally activated this debt. Or maybe you made a mistake in your prayer or invoked the wrong angel. You ought to revise the working and keep focus on your intention. Either way, magick works!

3) If the problem stays the same, then they’ll say, just keep looking for results! Remember, even getting a pleasant feeling inside is a result of sorts! Keep doing the prayer/magick, and it will eventually lead to payoff in the real world (see one and two, above: all problems eventually get better or worse).
And there we have it. Oh, and just for fun, check out this kid’s later contribution to the same thread:
yeah [this kind of prayer] works but it is clear that contacting such beings in travelling or skrying in the spirit vision is more effective and rewarding imo so yeah i guesse in a sense it is geared towards the new age layman but sophisticates such as us could use it in our arsenal too haha
He’s clearly caught up in a little fantasy where he’s part of a band of “sophisticates” with an ‘arsenal” of magical powers who can “travel” and “skry” in the “spirit vision” but who can also appropriate techniques used by those poor, profane “new age laymen” to work awesome magic by “downloading” problems to goblins from another dimension (prayer for the tech generation! iAngel 5!)

Here’s a Christmas present for everyone reading this: grow up. There is no Santa Claus, and there are no magical powers.

Happy Holidays!