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

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Four Elements: Air

The element of air represents the mind and thought. The rationale behind this attribution is that thought shares with air the quality of rapid movement and transience. Just as air flitters about, ever changing, so too does thought move through the mind.

The sword is the magical weapon attributed to air, and in a chapter on that tool in Book 4, part 2, Crowley writes, “the Magick Sword is the Reason, ‘the Son,’ the six Sephiroth of the Ruach […] The Magick Sword is the analytical faculty.”
This article will closely read Crowley’s essay on the sword, exploring his explication of this weapon, the element it signifies, and – most important – the idea signified by that element.

The first thing to observe about the sword – that is to say, about reason – is that it operates entirely “below the abyss and is a “destructive” weapon. Crowley writes:

it divides Satan against Satan. It is only in the lower forms of Magick, the purely human forms, that the Sword has become so important a weapon. A dagger should be sufficient.
But the mind of man is normally so important to him that the sword is actually the largest of his weapons; happy is he who can make the dagger suffice!”

In other words, all that is really required is a sharpened critical thinking faculty: a keen ability to classify (divide) phenomena and, especially, to identify bullshit when one sees it. Those are the bare bones of the weapon, and, metaphorically speaking, such a “dagger” is all that is needed. However, the mind is very important to most people, and a lot of people tend to overestimate it: one must be cautious of emphasizing the functions of the mind so much that one forgets that the mind is a servant of the True Self (and not the other way around). As Crowley reminds us, “though [the sword] must be wielded to gain admission to the palace [i.e. to achieve attainment], it cannot be worn at the marriage feast.” He further warns, “Those Magicians, who have attempted to make the Sword the sole or even the principal weapon, have only destroyed themselves, not by the destruction of combination, but by the destruction of division.”
However, it’s important to place Crowley’s comments in context. He was writing as an educated Victorian, steeped in the classics, philosophy, grammar, and critical thinking. While it’s true that a “dagger” will suffice, we might reflect that students today are overwhelmingly likely to begin their journey in Thelema equipped with something more like a dull butter knife, if that.

Far too many students take comments like these as license to shrug off education as an unnecessary burden, reveling in their own ignorance and even wearing it as a badge of honor. It may be impossible to count the number of slack-jawed yokels professing an interest in Thelema on websites all over the internet, celebrating their partial understandings in stilted writing and in logical errors wrapped in logical errors.
An aspirant would do very well to see to the education of his or her mind as first and foremost in the training. And by “education,” I don’t mean “occult education.” I mean the rough equivalent of a university degree, with a lot of extra effort put it above and beyond what is required. It’s not that hard – particularly for people with natural intelligence and aptitude – to “coast by” and finish university while learning very little. What I’m talking about is an actual, honest-to-goodness application of oneself and exercise of one’s mental faculties. Possessing “degrees” or not is no sure indicator, one way or another, of this achievement.

One cannot perform one’s will without an understanding of the options available for one. It is the mind’s duty to assist with this process, but the mind cannot help – it cannot be a good and dutiful servant – if it is not well educated broadly across a spectrum of subjects, with a special emphasis on clear thinking and critical examination of claims.
There is no shame in lacking these skills. If I had to guess, I would say that the next generation (at least) of prospective Thelemites – particularly those raised in America, where public education tends to be very poor – will have a lot of work to do in this area before they can fashion a sufficient “dagger” for the work before them. Consider your education to be an important foundation for the Work, and by all means take your time in sharpening the sword, continuing to learn and study as you keep up your more strictly Thelemic education as well.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s turn to the function of the sword/mind: division.
directed against any demon [the sword] attacks his complexity. […] Only the simple can withstand the sword. […] it divides Satan against Satan”

Obviously, Crowley isn’t literally talking about demons or devils. “Demons” are parts of the magician’s psyche (more specifically destructive parts of the ego). “Satan” is an abstract concept that can represent a lot of things: in this particular place, the term represents the ego.
So the Sword breaks complex things down into simpler things, particularly the magician’s own ego, which, by the way, is held in place by the thoughts and ultimately the mind itself. Those very thoughts and the mind also will ultimately be broken down. We’ll get to that later.

But what is the purpose of a magical weapon that divides? Aren’t we already divided from our True Selves? For what reason would we need to “divide” anything? Crowley gives us the answer in describing the symbolic appearance of the sword:
It is made of steel, to equilibrate with the hilt, for steel is the metal of Mars, as copper is of Venus.
Those two planets are male and female -- and thus reflect the Wand and the Cup, though in a much lower sense.
The hilt is of Venus, for Love is the motive of this ruthless analysis -- if this were not so the sword would be a Black Magical weapon.

The sword combines Venus and Mars (Love and Will): Venus is the hilt because “love” is at the root of the work of the Sword. Crowley has in mind here this passage from the Book of the Law:
28. None, breathed the light, faint & faery, of the stars, and two.
29. For I am divided for love's sake, for the chance of union.
30. This is the creation of the world, that the pain of division is as nothing, and the joy of dissolution all.

The basic account of creation, according to Thelemic cosmogony, is that Nuit (who is Nothingness) divided nothingness into two equal and opposite things that ultimately cancel out (0= +1 + -1). To put it another way, Nuit is playing a game whereby she is pretending that a part of her is separate from the whole so as to enjoy the illusion of separation. That illusion of separation is generated by the Khu, and it entails what we call individuality. [See Erwin Hessle's essay "The Khabs is in the Khu" for more)
Our True Self (Khabs) has been divided from the whole, draped with the “veil” of individuality. Our task is to rend that veil – actually, more like to learn how to see through it – in order to reconnect to our True Self and thus to the Nothing that is Nuit.

[It should go without saying, of course, that the “creation account” is just a metaphor. Nuit isn’t actually a thinking being with a consciousness: thinking beings and consciousness are just some of the illusory “things” that emerge from Nothing. And by the way, “Nothing” is equally an illusion. Stop taking this stuff too literally. They’re just images in your head.]
From the perspective of the individual, down here on the Tree of Life, below the abyss and in the realm in which the sword operates, the rending of that veil is accomplished by the “ruthless analysis” of the sword.

As Crowley puts it:
"Whoso taketh the sword shall perish by the sword," is not a mystical threat, but a mystical promise. It is our own complexity that must be destroyed.
Here is another parable. Peter, the Stone of the Philosophers, cuts off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the High Priest (the ear is the organ of Spirit). In analysis the spiritual part of Malkuth must be separated from it by the philosophical stone, and then Christus, the Anointed One, makes it whole once more. "Solve et coagula!"
It is noticeable that this takes place at the arrest of Christ, who is the son, the Ruach, immediately before his crucifixion.

So the sword destroys complexity, but it is our own complexity (or, rather, the complexity of the very mind and mental processes represented by the sword itself, ironically) that are to be destroyed.
Gives a new meaning to the old saying, “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” as Crowley points out.

Crowley then illustrates this same point by taking a Gospel story and turning it into an allegory for the idea he’s talking about: the story is that when the Roman soldiers came to arrest Christ before his crucifixion, Peter used his sword to slice off the ear of one of the soldiers. Christ scolded Peter – since he knew that he had to be crucified – and magically reattached the soldier’s ear.
The way Crowley reinterprets this myth, the ear represents the Spirit (the True Self of the aspirant). It is necessary to use the sword – the analytical faculties – to separate out the dross of Malkuth (the body and the culmination of the self-image generated by sephiroth 7-9) so that the aspirant can focus on the True Self: in other words, the work of the sword can help the aspirant discover the True Will by “cutting off” all that is not the Self. Upon attaining, of course, everything gets reattached (since the thoughts that comprise an individual’s “false self” do, in a sense, “belong” to the True Self…the newly attained individual simply considers those thoughts to be the possessions of the Self and not actually the self, and so he or she is no longer fooled by them).

This is the solve et coagula formula (divide and recombine), one way to talk about the Great Work. [Serious students should consult Atus VI and XIV of the Tarot for a wealth of symbolic commentary on this formula]
As Crowley notes, this is immediately before Christ is crucified, before (to shift into the symbolic register) the Ruach is sacrificed and transcended (ultimately, Crossing the Abyss).

I’ll get to the “Abyss crossing” stuff in a bit.
[By the way, Crowley draws on science to make an excellent metaphor in this chapter in one of his footnotes. First, Crowley notes that “The Sword or Dagger is attributed to air, all-wandering, all-penetrating, but unstable; not a phenomenon subtle like fire, not a chemical combination like water, but a mixture of gases.” In other words, the mind is unstable and has impurities in it (i.e. the illusions of the Khu that pull an individual away from his or her True Will). Then, Crowley attaches a footnote that develops the comparison:

The Oxygen in the air would be too fierce for life; it must be largely diluted with the inert nitrogen.
The rational mind supports life, but about seventy-nine per cent. of it not only refuses itself to enter into combination, but prevents the remaining twenty-one per cent. from doing so. Enthusiasms are checked; the intellect is the great enemy of devotion. One of the tasks of the Magician is to manage somehow to separate the Oxygen and Nitrogen in his mind, to stifle four-fifths so that he may burn up the remainder, a flame of holiness. But this cannot be done by the Sword.
Nitrogen is necessary to dilute the oxygen in air so as to permit life to exist on this planet: but a scientist can separate out the two. In the same way, the illusions of the Khu are necessary to produce individuality, but a magician must endeavor to separate out the illusions from the True Will. And while the sword – the reason – can assist in the separation, the sword is powerless to burn up the oxygen (to discover the True Will). That is the work of another weapon, the subject of another essay.]

Let’s first consider how, specifically, one uses the sword to accomplish this great feat of assisting with the Great Work.
Having sharpened the intellect, let the student turn the powers of analysis onto thought. Start paying attention to thoughts and develop as precise a taxonomy of your thoughts as you can. Can you recognize an opinion? An emotion? A hunch? A belief not founded on evidence? A daydream? Do you know how often you worry about things outside of your control? How often you think self-deprecating thoughts or proud thoughts? How often you tend to mentally “rehearse” for things you have yet to do? How often you think about what other people are thinking of you?

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Anyone who can’t honestly answer questions like those – with specific examples -- from the experience of observing himself or herself day-in and day-out for a long period of time is absolutely joking when they try to speak about “attaining” anything.

What’s revealing about this process is the extent to which one begins to notice how the thoughts and emotions color perceptions. It is this coloring of perceptions that comprises a great deal of the Khu’s tendency to pull the individual away from his True Will (weigh him down with the dross of Malkuth).
A sharpened sword cuts through this dreck, slices the body off from the ear, isolates the True Self so that the aspirant can more easily concentrate on his deepest Self and, as they say in the magical tradition, await the indwelling of Spirit.

Crowley devotes a nice chunk of the essay on the sword to discussing the mind’s tendency to cloud perception with thought and emotion:
It is also written, Liber CCXX, iii, 11: "Let the woman be girt with a sword before me." But this refers to the arming of Vedana with Sanna, the overcoming of emotion by clarity of perception.

One may now go on to consider the use of the Sword in purifying emotions into perceptions.
It was the function of the Cup to interpret the perceptions by the tendencies; the Sword frees the perceptions from the Web of emotion.
The perceptions are meaningless in themselves; but the emotions are worse, for they delude their victim into supposing them significant and true.
Every emotion is an obsession; the most horrible of blasphemies is to attribute any emotion to God in the macrocosm, or to the pure soul in the microcosm.
The Magician must therefore make himself absolutely free in this respect.
It is the constant practice of Demons to attempt to terrify, to shock, to disgust, to allure. Against all this he must oppose the Steel of the Sword. If he has got rid the ego-idea this task will be comparatively easy; unless he has done so it will be almost impossible.
let [the young magician] first become indifferent. Let him endeavour to see facts as facts, as simply as he would see them if they were historical. Let him avoid the imaginative interpretation of any facts. Let him not put himself in the place of the people of whom the facts are related, or if he does so, let it be done only for the purpose of comprehension. Sympathy, indignation, praise and blame, are out of place in the observer.
No one has properly considered the question as to the amount and quality of the light afforded by candles made by waxed Christians.
Who has any idea which joint of the ordinary missionary is preferred by epicures? It is only a matter of conjecture that Catholics are better eating than Presbyterians.
Yet these points and their kind are the only ones which have any importance at the time when the events occur.
Nero did not consider what unborn posterity might think of him; it is difficult to credit cannibals with the calculation that the recital of their exploits will induce pious old ladies to replenish their larder.
Very few people have ever "seen" a bull-fight. One set of people goes for excitement, another set for the perverse excitement which real or simulated horror affords. Very few people know that blood freshly spilled in the sunlight is perhaps the most beautiful colour that is to be found in nature.
It is a notorious fact that it is practically impossible to get a reliable description of what occurs at a spiritualistic "seance;" the emotions cloud the vision.
Only in the absolute calm of the laboratory, where the observer is perfectly indifferent to what may happen, only concerned to observe exactly what that happening is, to measure and to weigh it by means of instruments incapable of emotion, can one even begin to hope for a truthful record of events.
See my essay on “Distorting Tendency of the Mind” (here) for more on Crowley’s reference to the bullfight and the role of all perceiving clearly in discovering the True Will.
What is important to grasp is that the mind – and especially the emotions of the mind – interfere with an individual’s ability to see things as they actually are. The proper course of action, then, is to train the mind (sharpen the sword) to counteract these effects of mind by making the individual aware of what the mind does, identify these distorting impressions, and separate them out (classify them and “divide” them away from the True Self, as with a sword). “Let him endeavor to see facts as facts,” indeed.
This training is vitally important when it comes time to see the individual’s own Self as it is (and not as he fondly imagines it to be). An aspirant who is constantly fooled by emotions when observing other phenomena simply won’t stand a chance when it comes to discerning his or her own actual preferences.
These parts of the essay are funny, in a characteristically Crowley way. The ideas above, that no one has considered the quality of light created by burning Christians and that cannibals give no heed to the idea that they are contributing to the stories that will lead to more donations to missionary societies are not only practical examples of the way that people overlook facts: they’re also damn funny.
Or take this classic one:
In reading emotional books such as are inflicted on children, let him always endeavour to see the event from the standpoint opposite to that of the author. Yet let him not emulate the partially emancipated child who complained of a picture of the Colosseum that "there was one poor little lion who hadn't got any Christian," except in the first instance. Adverse criticism is the first step; the second must go further.
Having sympathized sufficiently with both the lions and the Christians, let him open his eyes to that which his sympathy had masked hitherto, that the picture is abominably conceived, abominably composed, abominably drawn, and abominably coloured, as it is pretty sure to be.
So, the typical reader of emotional books (or any kind of media or art) takes the story “straight,” the way that it’s presented. But there are more perspectives than just that “straight” way of seeing, and there are higher ideas than perspectives at all (by the way, you’ve gotta love the snarky final clause “as it is pretty sure to be.” I get the feeling sometimes that many people who don’t read Crowley – but pretend to be “into” him – don’t actually understand how funny the man was).
The application to other areas of life should be clear. To take the bullfight example, there’s the “straight” way of looking at it that the mind presents (either excited or horrified by it), the “adverse” perspective (the opposite of what the mind presents), and then all the other details that have been masked by those emotions: the beauty of the blood, the sounds the bull is making, the heat from the sun…all the things that a person is liable to miss when absorbed in his own thoughts.
Crowley also keenly points out the deleterious effects that emotions and preference in thought  have on one’s ability to reach intellectual and moral conclusions:
The Bible has been mistranslated by perfectly competent scholars because they had to consider the current theology. The most glaring example is the "Song of Solomon," a typical piece of Oriental eroticism. But since to admit that it was this would never do for a canonical book, they had to pretend that it was symbolical.
Some translators could not bear that the heathen Chinese should use the word Shang Ti, and pretended that it did not mean God. Others, compelled to admit that it did mean God, explained that the use of the term showed that "God had not left himself without a witness even in this most idolatrous of nations. They had been mysteriously compelled to use it, not knowing what it meant." All this because of their emotional belief that they were better than the Chinese.
Once more, we see how emotion clouds judgment and how the development of the sword – the ability to pierce through the veil thrown up by the Khu and perceive things as they are – is vital to understand the world.
Again, it is almost impossible for the well-mannered Christian to realize that Jesus Christ ate with his fingers. The temperance advocate makes believe that the wine at the marriage feast of Cana was non-alcoholic.
It is a sort of mad syllogism.
"Nobody whom I respect does this."
"I respect So-and-so."
"Therefore, So-and-so did not do this."
Crowley here demonstrates how a person can use logic to lead himself astray instead of properly wielding logic to come to accurate conclusions. In this way, he gives a practical example of the warning given in AL II: 27-33.
As I’ve pointed out numerous times on this blog (see here), those verses of AL are often misread so that people think that they are a condemnation of the use of reason. But those verses do not condemn reason. They condemn the misapplication of reason and the tendency of such misapplications to lead individuals astray. As Crowley himself avers, the Book of the Law is not opposed to reason but instead makes reason the “autocrat of the mind”: "We must not suppose for an instant that the Book of the Law is opposed to reason. On the contrary, its own claim to authority rests upon reason, and nothing else. It disdains the arts of the orator. It makes reason the autocrat of the mind." It is the mind, however, that has limits: the mind is the tool by which the individual evaluates the world so as to assist the True Will in manifesting.
Crowley’s next point in this essay is an important one:
As long as we try to fit facts to theories instead of adopting the scientific attitude of altering the theories (when necessary) to fit the facts, we shall remain mired in falsehood.
The religious taunt the scientific man with this open-mindedness, with this adaptability. "Tell a lie and stick to it!" is "their" golden rule.
It is not uncommon to find religionists mocking science because of its tendency to “change.” Take, for example, professional idiot Ray Comfort, who – during a discussion on the internet call in show The Atheist Experience – decried science for “changing all the time,” in contrast to the steady truth of the Bible which always remains the same. After all, he points out, scientists used to say that the earth is millions of years old. Then hundreds of millions of years old. Now they say it is billions of years old! There’s no consistency! Not like the good ol’ tried and true word of Christ….

[See here, roughly between 16:00-18:00
What simpletons like Comfort don’t understand, of course, is that science is based on evidence. As we discover more evidence, our conclusions change to match the evidence. What religionists do is exactly the opposite: they pick a belief that they prefer to be true – based on their emotional experiences, enthusiasm, and spiffy ol’ intuition – and then they twist evidence to fit their preferred belief.
This is not a pathway to truth of any kind.
Crowley’s excellent observation here is reminiscent of his comment in Liber Samekh:
If the Adept is to be any wise conscious of his Angel it must be that some part of his mind is prepared to realise the rapture, and to express it to itself in one way or another. This involves the perfection of that part, its freedom from prejudice and the limitations of rationality so-called. For instance: one could not receive the illumination as to the nature of life which the doctrine of evolution should shed, if one is passionately persuaded that humanity is essentially not animal, or convinced that causality is repugnant to reason. The Adept must be ready for the utter destruction of his point of view on any subject, and even that of his innate conception of the forms and laws of thought. Thus he may find that his Angel consider his "business" or his "love" to be absurd trifles; also that human ideas of "time" are invalid, and human "laws" of logic applicable only to the relations between illusions.
Just as the creationist denies evolution because of his emotional reaction against the idea (instead of studying the evidence for it), so too does the average person deny his True Will because of an emotional attachment to his preferred idea of himself (the self image, what Crowley calls elsewhere a “fancy image” of the self).
It is only by purging his mind of the distorting influence of emotions and preference that the aspirant can perceive his nature clearly and act on it.
Crowley recommends, as a way of overcoming the emotions, Mahasatipatthana, which is the form of meditation where one observes carefully. One takes a breath and notes, “There is breathing in.” One exhales and notes, “There is breathing out.” One opens a door and notes, “There is a lifting of a hand to the door and a pulling of it open,” etc., etc.
By the way, when you’re actually doing this practice, you don’t necessarily have to consciously articulate each and every action “out loud” in your thoughts, but you pay attention, such that you notice everything that happens, and you notice it without reference to a “self” that’s doing it (that starts to happen all by itself before very long if you diligently practice this meditation).
Anyway, Crowley adds that this meditation “should be aided in every moment of life by endeavouring to estimate occurrences at their true value.”
Are we noticing a pattern here? Crowley is insistent that a student should train his or her mind to perceive everything as it is, to see everything at its true value.
As a side note, the various dunderheads who populate online “occult” forums and say stupid things like, “There is no truth!” obviously couldn’t be further from Crowley’s positions. If there aren’t objective facts, then there’s no way to see the facts as facts.
What do we mean by “true value” of phenomena, though? In addition to things as they are, uncolored by emotion, Crowley indicates another way that we can evaluate phenomena at their true worth, by considering them in context. He explains in a very practically useful passage:
[Occurrences’] relativity in particular must be carefully considered.
Your toothache does not hurt any one outside a very small circle. Floods in China mean to you nothing but a paragraph in the newspaper. The destruction of the world itself would have no significance in Sirius. One can hardly imagine even that the astronomers of Sirius could perceive so trifling a disturbance.
Now considering that Sirius itself is only, as far as you know, but one, and one of the least important, of the ideas in your mind, why should that mind be disturbed by your toothache? It is not possible to labour this point without tautology, for it is a very simple one; but it should be emphasised, for it is a very simple one. Waugh! Waugh! Waugh! Waugh! Waugh! [This is an attempt to mimic the sound of a dog barking. Sirius is the “dog star”--Los]
To see things at their true value includes acknowledging how everything is equally trivial to the universe: there is no basis of comparison between two things and thus no way to evaluate anything as ultimately “better” than any other thing. From the perspective of the universe – which is Indifferent to anything that happens – a flood in China, your toothache, you winning the lottery, the final season of Breaking Bad commencing in a few weeks, some distant star supanova-ing – none of it is any “better” or “worse” than any other thing. There’s no reason, a priori, that any of those things should disturb the aspirant any more than any of those other things.
As Crowley points out, each one is ultimately only a thought in the mind. Even in the example of the toothache, the sensation of pain is just that: a sensation whose perception is a thought in the mind, just as your awareness of a flood in China is a thought in your mind. Sure, your sensation of a toothache sucks, but your thought that it sucks is just another thought.
None of it has any ultimate consequence. And that’s the point: only an individual who is perfectly Indifferent to everything that happens is capable of fully perceiving reality (as best as he can) as it actually is.
I think a lot of people don’t understand this concept. They think that Indifference means wandering around with a perpetual sour puss on, never showing any emotion and never reacting to anything. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Someone who is truly Indifferent would never suppress any part of his being. He would feel emotions and be indifferent to them. He would act in accordance to those emotions, or not, as his Will dictates, and he would be Indifferent to those emotions and his actions. He would accept, fully, every part of himself, with the understanding that none of those individual parts is himself.
And here we return to the idea of the sword enabling the individual to transcend the Ruach itself: the sword is also instrumental in ultimately turning the mind against the mind and “destroying” the self (or, rather, the belief in the idea that we call “self”).
It is difficult to speak about this subject, but a few words should suffice.
Recall that Crowley described his Liber Os as “An instruction in a purely intellectual method of entering the Abyss.” The way in to the abyss is through the intellect, a turning of the mind against mind. Notice, however, that Liber Os is a method of entering the Abyss, not getting out again. It is the inertia of an aspirant (the force of the True Will) that carries him to the other side once he has entered. Until then, all the aspirant can do is wait and grow as a Babe.
According to One Star in Sight, attainment of the 8=3 grade -- that is, crossing the Abyss -- requires “the emancipation from thought by putting each idea against its opposite, and refusing to prefer either.” The really important part of this sentence is “refusing to prefer either.” It’s preference itself that constitutes the personality and that becomes undone by this process. This is the ultimate end of Indifference, for it destroys all preference, even the preferences of the aspirant’s “True” self. The final realization here is the self is, in fact, itself nothing more than a thought in the mind. To put it another way, “thoughts” don’t require a thinker: “thinker” is an idea that is itself a thought.
After this attainment, the individual will be gone (as an individual). And yet all will continue as it was, and others around him may not perceive any difference or have any clue at all to his Mastery. And, of course, the Master will be perfectly indifferent to all of it – especially toward his own Mastery.
Such is a description of the function of the Sword and how, by turning the mind against the mind, the aspirant may free his True inclinations from the prison of the mind and, ultimately, transcend the rational mind and thought entirely.
The sword, in short, is a powerful magical weapon. That is to say, the qualities symbolically described by the sword are immensely powerful. There is much practical wisdom in Crowley’s writing on the subject, and it is hoped that a student will devote much time to reading it with attention.


  1. I really appreciate your perspective, but why try to reclaim such a small religion as Thelema when, as a subcultural phenomenon already, its strongest exponents are pretty much wired to be defensive as hell?

    There are other traditions with well-worked-out existential wings (Paul Tillich for liberal Christianity, Stephen Batchelor for secular Buddhism). Plenty of other religious and mystical groups offer practices with the intent of letting go of obsessions with a narrow false-self perspective, some of which don't have all the superstitious baggage of the history of actual practitioners of spiritism, New Age and Western Occult practices. Hell, your own description of the bulk of your spiritual practice outside of ritual contexts looks like something any Zen or Vipassana practitioner would recognize, as of course it would have to.

    I say all this as someone who knows a fair bit about comparative mysticisms (including experientially, to some small level, and I recognize that your actual practice is clearly working if you can diagnose it this sharply in these terms) and who spent a couple of years in his teens trying to make Thelema work personally, so I'm not trying to tear you down. I _like_ your perspective, but it reminds me a little of the seven of wands: why bother with all that valor? Why not try something more conducive to the meat of the Work and not expend all this energy trying to convince people of something they're not looking for? You yourself have done a very good job of proving the case that aspiring Thelemites these past 50+ years haven't actually been very interested in seeking apatheia/ataraxia/henosis/mystical union/enlightenment as described by the ancients and the hermetic traditions, so by your own demonstration this is a pretty tall order. What do you get out of this? What is valuable enough to you about Crowley's perspective and the practices he developed that you think worth keeping despite both his own shortcomings and the additional shortcomings of his followers?

    I would be fascinated to hear your answer.

  2. Part 1

    Well, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’m going to address your points out of order for convenience.

    “I _like_ your perspective, but it reminds me a little of the seven of wands: why bother with all that valor? Why not try something more conducive to the meat of the Work and not expend all this energy trying to convince people of something they're not looking for? […] What do you get out of this?”

    So, on a purely personal note, writing my blog and/or posts on other websites is as much Thelemic practice as it is explanation of Thelema. I do these things because, simply put, I’m the kind of person inclined to do these things. That’s why I “bother,” though of course, from my perspective, it’s not a “bother” at all because it’s what I enjoy doing. If it ever becomes a bother, I’ll stop doing it. In fact, when I go for long stretches without writing a blog post, it’s usually because other things are keeping me busy and that writing a blog post *would* be a bother in those circumstances.

    I’m not really trying to “convince” people, as if my goal is to get everyone to look at things the way I do. I write for the sake of writing. Reasonable people who are able to look at the issues objectively will be convinced. Others will not. Che sera, sera. If nobody was convinced by reading my work, I wouldn’t particularly care one way or another.

    And, incidentally, there *are* people out there who are interested in Thelema who actually don’t realize that one doesn’t have to buy into the supernatural stuff to practice it. Some of them just need a little nudge.

    But if your question is why I’m expounding Thelema and not those existentialist readings of Buddhism and Christianity that you mention – which would probably amount to something very similar to what I say now – my only answer is that I’m very familiar with Thelema, having studied it for many years, and I find it useful to communicate in its idiom. Trying to come up with new terms for everything or trying to learn a new symbol-set for saying the same things seems like an unproductive use of my time.

  3. Part 2

    “why try to reclaim such a small religion as Thelema when, as a subcultural phenomenon already, its strongest exponents are pretty much wired to be defensive as hell?”

    Two things here: first, I don’t really see what I’m doing as “reclaiming” Thelema. I think of it as explaining what Thelema actually is and how best to practice it in the modern world, when we know a lot more about the universe than the people of Crowley’s day did and when we know that these supernatural claims just do not have the evidentiary support that even Crowley at times seemed to be holding out hope for.

    I don’t think I’m “reclaiming” Crowley himself, either, because – and I’ll expand on this below – I tend to think Crowley’s outlook was awfully similar to mine on a number of issues. More on that in a minute.

    Second, I think the defensiveness of its strongest exponents, as you put it, highlights the correctness of my argument. After all, people tend to get defensive when they know they are in the wrong. If you challenge someone’s belief that the earth goes around the sun, and then you challenge that same person’s belief in God, you generally get two entirely different kinds of reactions. When you challenge that first belief, the person just laughs you off, but when you challenge the second belief, that’s when the defensiveness starts. It’s arguably the case that the person knows, deep down inside, that the second belief isn’t actually justified. Merely being challenged on it – merely being asked, “Why do you think that?” and not being permitted to give a slippery or insufficient answer – provokes defensiveness because they know they don’t have a good answer to the question. Some of them get downright angry, and it’s largely that they’re angry at themselves for not being able to explain their ideas on this subject in the way that they would explain any other idea on any other subject.

    I think most practitioners of supernaturalist magic are similarly aware that their beliefs aren’t justified, and it’s fascinating to watch their reactions to being called out on this fact. The majority of them react in ways substantially identical to believers of other religions, and I think it’s for the same reasons.

    One of the points I often make about Thelema is that most Thelemites don’t actually practice Thelema but rather some murky pseudo-religion grounded in misreadings of Thelema. We can determine this simply by comparing their beliefs to the source material, but even more support is given to my argument by the way they react to reasonable and simple questions about their beliefs.

    I think any fair-minded Thelemic observer, seeing this kind of defensive religious behavior among people who call themselves Thelemites, should be taken aback and wonder why it is that these people, if they are actually correct, get so defensive and go to such great lengths to develop philosophical frameworks that obviate the need for having to justify themselves on this one issue.

  4. Part 3

    “What is valuable enough to you about Crowley's perspective and the practices he developed that you think worth keeping despite both his own shortcomings and the additional shortcomings of his followers?”

    This is a great question. I suppose it’s too easy an answer just to say, as I did above, that my writing about Crowley is largely a matter of personal interest and preference. I *do* certainly think that a person can learn everything they need to learn about “attainment” without reading Crowley, and in some senses it might be easier for them to avoid getting bogged down in all the distractionary stuff that comes with Crowley.

    So why bother with Crowley at all? Or, to put it another way, what is there of value in Crowley over and beyond my personal preference for his writings?

    One of the primary things of value is the emphasis he placed on the “method of science,” which, of course, doesn’t mean carefully writing down what phase the moon was in when you did the LBRP tonight. Rather, the “method of science” refers to attempting to view the world – and the Self – as objectively as possible. Now, obviously, Crowley isn’t the only “spiritual teacher” to express this idea, but he was the first, as far as I’m aware, to connect the idea to our developing scientific understanding of the world, and he turned to science, whenever possible, to furnish analogies for spiritual experience:

    In an age of flaky new age gurus who try lamely to ride the coattails of quantum mechanics, it’s a breath of fresh air to see Crowley make frequent comparisons to chemical reactions, astronomy, and many other branches of science – not to argue that we have super powers but to illustrate some very old spiritual concepts in often illuminating ways. I mentioned above, in the very post you were commenting on, his use of the chemical composition of air to make a point about the magical weapon attributed to the element of air.

  5. Part 4

    Another value that Crowley has – look out for your irony meter! – is that he was very good at pointing out that most historical spiritual traditions are loaded down with superstitious bullshit. Part of his “mission,” as he conceived it, was to strip these systems down to their bare essentials, to show that if we jettison the crap from the “spiritual” traditions of the world, we can have for ourselves a practical, simple system of initiation.

    Look at Part I of Book IV as a classic example: Crowley pared down the practice of meditation to something exceedingly simple, something that a person could practice with scientific precision, tossing out all of the nonsense with which people dress up the experience (including especially ethical ideas associated with the practice and claims that people like Jesus and Mohammed attached to Dhyana [“It was Jehovah!” or “It was Gabriel!”]).

    Look at the tables of 777, which reduce the gods worshipped by mankind to a collection of symbols. Have a look at Liber Astarte, which describes the function of religious worship – with the strong implication that one god is ultimately as good as any other, that the experience is the whole point (“First concerning the choice of a particular Deity. This matter is of no import, sobeit that thou choose one suited to thine own highest nature.”)

    Crowley’s writings are liberally sprinkled with comments that make fun of the supernatural nonsense that people used to believe in. It’s this attitude that led him to pick an explicitly “absurd” term for the goal of his system (“Holy Guardian Angel”) so as to remind the student that it’s just a label.

    I was originally going to go through his writings and give some examples, but this already way too long for a blog comment. Suffice it to say that Crowley's writings contain many examples of him making fun of supernaturalism, and anyone who seriously thinks the guy was anything close to the new age space cadets running around claiming kinship with him now needs to go back to the source material and read it more carefully.

    And in part, that's what I'm doing on my blog: facilitating readings of the source material, which is sorely neglected by most of the people calling themselves Thelemites.

    Anyway, Crowley is the only spiritual teacher, as far as I’m aware, who explicitly tells his students, “I’m going to use this term *because* it’s absurd, just to make sure you don’t get confused.”

    Of course, most of his students get confused anyway.

    It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Crowley trying to identify something *useful* and *practical* in other systems, underneath the ridiculous supernatural baggage that they come saddled with. It’s of course deeply ironic that he himself was not immune to his own brand of superstitious nonsense, but the central idea of his mission – that constant quest for what is useful and practical underneath the wooly and ridiculous – is one that ignited my imagination as a young man and that still possesses me to find the “good” in any system (and to scoff at the rest).

  6. Part 5

    Third, I think Crowley’s general emphasis on skepticism is an immense boon to a student. In many ways, this is an extension of my second point, but Crowley stressed skepticism not just toward supernatural beliefs but toward the distorting influences of the mind: the emotions, the thoughts, the self-image, the entire edifice of mental constructs that comprise the illusion we call the self.

    When combined with his emphasis on the “method of science,” his comparisons to actual scientific inquiry, and his playful blasphemy and tendency to scoff at supernatural claptrap, this skepticism teaches students a truly useful frame of mind with which to approach the world and claims in general.

    It’s this skeptical frame of mind – one that is never laid out so boldly in other spiritual teachers – that constitutes Crowley’s real and lasting value as a teacher. He would have been the first one to say that he doesn’t want people dully repeating him or doing and believing things just because he said them. For goodness’ sake, the man joined a magical order, broke with it, and started his own damn order. If it were actually possible for Crowley to be born again in today’s day and age, do you really think that he would sign up with one of these groups that calls themselves A.’.A.’. and meekly work through the degrees?

    Finally, I think Crowley’s works have a literary value that makes them worth studying in and of themselves – far more so than any other “spiritual teachers” throughout history. While his poetry was not very good (though not terrible, either), his so-called Holy Books are masterpieces that deserve to be studied as part of literary modernism, right along with the works of Yeats and Joyce and other contemporaries. His prose, too, is a pleasure to read and unpack: it is often densely packed with literary allusion, religious imagery reinterpreted, obscure symbolism, wordplay, and a great deal of wit and humor. There are very frequently profound nuggets to be gleaned in much of the man’s prose, and while I may not always agree with what Crowley says, I’m almost sure to enjoy how he says it.

    I would study his works even if I didn’t have the slightest interest in Thelema or attainment whatsoever, simply for the sheer pleasure of engaging with his thoughts. This article that you’re commenting on is an example of my unpacking his ideas so as to make him easier to read for others. My goal is for someone unversed in Crowley to be able to read my article and then go to the source material and find it less daunting.

    For all of the above reasons, I say that Crowley stands head and shoulders above any of the other supposed really great spiritual teachers – R.G.T.s, as he puts in Magick Without Tears.

    That was a little more than I intended to write, but I hope that answered your question.

  7. Thank you for the exceedingly thorough response! Highly edifying, and all the best luck with it. Either way, it's been fun reading your blog!

  8. I don't mean to judge or anything, but people who find the burning of anyone to be funny, or that the feelings of the lions in the coliseum were equally relevant emotions to the loss of human life, is almost certainly a sociopath. There is a reason that Crowley initially thought Hitler was a good leader who would be better if he adopted Thelema as the national religion of the Reich, only to feel slighted when Hitler threw out all the Freemasons and anyone even remotely related to the occult regardless of their symilarities to the 'Wewelsburg thing', ie, Germer. If Hitler had accepted Thelema, and his True Will was to burn some more Jews, what Law could stand to testify against the human carnage? Liber OZ/77, the Jews stood against his True Will; so he lost his right to protection from death in the process? So what, he held all the Swords. Heck, Hitler was a vegetarian and an environmentalist, so he cared about the Lions! Hitlers only real crime was to slight Therion ... and the ego is a big part of sociopathy.

    I mean, 93 93/93 crap aside, it is quite possible that people who habitually claim to practice 'love', and who really have no compassion for humanity under the skin, might not be the best type of people to associate with. Perhaps it's time the true Word31 shone a little bit of life into the barren ovary of Nuit ... ShT, don't wake the blind angels.