A quick note on advanced practices

In my callow youth I was very much focused on the practical aspects of magic and spirituality. I would scrutinise any potential literary purchases with a careful eye – those that did not contain practical instructions were destined to enter the ‘maybe later’ category. This reflected both my own search for inner workings (as detailed in this post) and the emphasis on orthopraxy within the magical traditions.

This very understandable focus on practice within magic contrasts the development of western Christianity’s focus on creed and orthodoxy since the Renaissance.  Christians believe and magicians do – so the story goes. Of course, there are plenty of Christians, such as the Eastern Orthodox, who have a strong orthopraxis element. And interestingly, there are a number of magicians who adhere to certain aspects of their tradition (such as Secret Chiefs) via trust and faith without direct experience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🙂

Now a heavy focus on practice alone can be a problem in itself. It took me a while (and many sighs from my teacher) to realise this, even though the nub of the matter is contained in this pithy saying I heard when a teenager:

Though a robe be washed a thousand times, how can it be clean if it is washed in dirty water?

Lobsang Rampa

This was described to me as a ‘Buddhist’ aphorism, though it’s just as likely to have stemmed from Rampaism for all I know. Here the various methods of practice are the ways to wash our clothes and the water is the context, the motivation and environment in which we practice. So, no matter how many times we practice, no matter what techniques we use, if our motivation and ideas are wrong or undeveloped we will not transform.

This is something I fairly hammer home in By Names and Images, repeating it several times, as I have seen the results of not understanding this principle far too many times in the magical community. To quote that old veteran of the esoteric, Gareth Knight:

To avoid unbalanced conditions of the astral light it is not sufficient simply to perform particular banishing formulae; what is required is the tranquillity of mind and heart that comes from stable outer life relationships and a selfless dedication.

I therefore get a little concerned when I hear of the heavy focus on practice, with people desiring more ‘advanced’ practices (secret, naturally) that they assume will ‘develop’ them further, ‘advance’ their understanding and raise their grade. Or something like that. I have known and know several folk who stay in dysfunctional groups because their leader has a promised advanced techniques in the next grade as a carrot. Since the publication of my book I have been corresponding with a few magicians in this exact situation, hopefully bringing a different perspective to the matter. The trick of course is to look at those promising the ‘advanced’ techniques and see if they show signs of being deeply transformed… or not? Look at their writings, their actions, the presence of compassion and tolerance in their lives… or not.

Now spiritual techniques are wonderful, and there certainly are junior, intermediate and ‘advanced’ forms, the latter type one would not use with novices. However, techniques themselves are not enough. Cutting and pasting from elsewhere:

Put simply, spiritual unfoldment is not the same as ecstasy or altered states of awareness nor is it brought on or developed solely by repeated experiences of the same. Other qualities, such as discipline, morality, compassion, altruism, introspection, and community service are required.

It is in this context we should read this article: Anders Behring Breivik used meditation to kill – he’s not the first.

Ayatollah Khomeini

Some readers of this blog may also be surprised to know that that icon of hatred, bigotry and murder, the late Ayatollah Khomeini was an accomplished and respected practitioner of Islamic mysticism, Irfan.

Meditation is not enough. Mysticism is not enough. Magic – even the most intense and ‘powerful’ advanced, secret-third-order-sex-magic – is not enough. The writer of the above article comes at the problem from a Buddhist perspective.

… the Buddha made right understanding the first item in his eightfold path because he knew that everyone is guided by a worldview and underlying beliefs. His teachings seek to reshape those views so they eliminate attachment and support liberation. Ultimately, that includes attachment to doctrines, but discarding them too soon means that pre-existing beliefs and prevailing opinion go unchallenged.

Right understanding. This is not a practice, but an attitude, a focal point, a giving up of the ego’s sovereignty. It is the neophyte in the Inner Light tradition declaring ‘I desire to know in order to serve‘. Nuff said? 🙂

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A little bit on symbols and the Golden Dawn

RR et AC Rose Cross

Following on from my last but one post, I have been thinking again about symbols and how they work to connect us with the transpersonal. There is a lot written on symbols out there, and probably much remains to be written. This is because the gift that symbols give us, access to the inner reality they represent, can never be exhausted. Like the One, these gifts go on ‘forever’, that is they are actually beyond the conceptions and realities of time and space.

As I have mentioned before, the Rosicrucian magic of the RR et AC and similar traditions is more akin to exegetical interaction with scripture than a correctly performed, tick all the boxes, ‘traditional’ Grimoric ritual. RR et AC magic is designed to be creative. It is supposed to capture us, meaning our lower egos, allure us and entice us into a relationship with the mysteries that empower the magic itself. By this relationship we are remade and renewed in the service of the One.

Of course, RR et AC magic, and similar traditions, are not free for all spontaneous affairs. There are certain well defined hallmarks of tradition. These however are not defined by orthodoxy (commonly understand to mean right ‘understanding’ or ‘thinking’, but really referring to the correct way to praise the One). Nor are they defined by orthopraxy, which is concerned with the correct action, as no one these days thinks their Order has the one correct redaction of the rituals, and all others are lesser or incorrect. Do they?

Rather, as in a previous post, I believe our traditions are defined by a concept I call Orthometapraxy, that is a correct way of meta-action, ‘adjacent’, ‘beyond’, or ‘inner’ action. So while we recognise variants in the Qabalistic Cross for example, we understand that its correct use will have some interior action, intention and focus of connecting us with the highest divinity and linking, balancing and opening ourselves to it. The focus here is on the inner activity, the ‘meta’ aspect of this rather long word. So, for example, I do not claim the various inner workings in By Names and Images are ‘correct’, or ‘traditional’, only that in their principles they follow traditional themes and mysteries which help produce transformation and service. Other variants of the rituals, and even other inner workings would still be ‘correct’ if they produce the same transformation.

In my earlier post on this concept I gave an example which bears repeating here. At the most ‘meta’ level we can say that most or even all spiritual practices, if they are to be effective, have to follow the following basic pattern:

  • Firstly, they have to strengthen our boundaries of the ‘box’ of everyday consciousness; make us strong, know who we are – grounding is the typical way of doing this.
  • Secondly, they have to then focus on the reality of what is beyond the box of everyday existence – Goddess, God, the One Being, Mystery, and allow us to surrender to be guided by that power. The practice needs to guide and show us how to give over ourselves to the higher forces, or to ‘begin in the name of God’.
  • Thirdly, they have to at some point move us ‘out of our box’ of everyday life – a transition of consciousness, guided safely into something OTHER, something beyond our current ego identity. This may be a state of meditation, the touch of Goddess in a ceremony of communion, an interaction with an unknown aspect of ourselves. But it has to be something different, outside our normal frame of reference. And this interaction has to be undertaken in balance.
  • Fourthly, the practice has to return our consciousness into ‘the box’ and re-strengthen the boundaries with care. Our interaction and communion with the Other, the sacred will promote an expansion of the box, a change of who we think we are.
  • Finally, they have to give thanks to the One, the Mystery beyond the box and promote our gratitude towards the One, to encourage us to form and maintain good relationship with the Sacred powers.

Once we focus upon orthometapraxy rather than orthopraxy or even orthodoxy (yes there are some GD Orders who implicitly promote orthodoxy) and embrace this attitude we are moved to be more open to variants and changes within our tradition. Again, this does not mean wholesale making up as we go along, as I believe one of the key principles of orthometapraxy is that change to tradition comes from the tradition itself, not individual practitioner whims, fancies or lower self concerns. How we distinguish the two is a matter of personal activity and conscience.

With respect to symbols then, we can see this ‘meta’ concept clearly. Within traditional western spirituality a symbol can never be defined, can never be limited, and no one can say ‘this is what this means’. If I remember my university semiotics correctly, such defining is a function of a sign, not a symbol. A symbol on the other hand, is a gateway to the transcendent, the timeless worlds of truth, harmony and beauty.

In all the traditional western magical approaches a symbol is introduced to the initiate, often within a certain time frame or context, and the initiate forms her or his own relationship with it. There may be some minor explanation of the symbol, typically at the end of an initiation ceremony, but these are clearly seen as leg-ups, hints and ways for the initiate to start her own journey. Anyone who thinks “symbol A means xxx and nothing more” has missed the point of symbolism within magic entirely.  Even if we think sneakily to ourselves, “OK symbol A can mean more things, but really it’s about xxx”, we show our lack of understanding. As modern western folk accustomed to definitive meaning in our daily interactions and the heavy use of signs, we all at times slip into thinking we know a symbol, into treating it as a sign.

The relationship between a symbol and an initiate, particularly a new initiate, is sacred. It should grow and unfold slowly and deeply, almost as if the symbol and initiate were two lovers exploring their sexual embraces for the first time. It is a precious thing, and should not be intruded upon by attempts at definitions and ideas. Even if the initiate comes to the same understanding as previous initiates concerning the mysteries and function of the symbol, which is generally what happens, they need to come to this realisation and embrace themselves. It is the getting there, the acts of surrender and struggle with the symbol which changes and remakes the initiate. This is one of the reasons interpretations of symbols, and indeed the symbols themselves, were kept secret in western magic – to avoid intrusion on the sacred embrace between initiate and the symbol.

I therefore get a little irked when someone tries to ‘inform’ or even worse ‘enforce’ meanings upon symbols. I also get annoyed when the transpersonal nature of symbols are forced into personal meaning. I have seen this happen a bit in modern exoteric churches were the mysterious symbols of Christianity are viewed upon as almost an embarrassment and mysteries are seldom enacted or discussed. At more than one Stations of the Cross, that intense re-enactment of the mysteries of the Via Dolorosa, I have heard the station of suffering described, almost traditionally. Then however, a modern gloss is put over the description and the meaning of what the station means, regarding the personal  lives of the congregation, are described and recited. So we empathise with Jesus falling by personal talk about how our daily lives can feel like a struggle.

There is much noble intention here – a linking of the Way of Sorrows with our own lives – but a lack of understanding of ritual and mystery. Since this description is only one of an infinitude ways of relating to the Way, it is necessarily limiting for some, if not most folk. Since it focuses on the personal it hinders the transpersonal the Way points to. Also, it robs each member of the congregation from their own journey with the raw power and awesome nature of the Way. It is by direct, personal interaction with these symbols (which is not easy), not recitation of their meaning, that the personal is truly infused by Mystery.

The same approach is seen in a few Golden Dawn groups and other traditions, where symbols are prescriptively described, making them almost a sign. Now some symbols have in the past been used and even misused as signs, as ways of interaction and knowing if the members are of a certain grade, have a certain teaching etc. They have also been used as shorthand, referring to particular magical practices. However, testing someone on these symbols, looking for a certain prescribed meaning is almost insulting to the symbol. A symbol will reveal a range of meanings, a broad scope of depth, most of which – and here is the important point – cannot be described as the meaning is beyond verbal, emotional and intellectual comprehension. It is apprehended by another aspect of our beings. Looking therefore for a single ‘answer’ is limiting. One could quite easily have communed with the deeper meaning of the symbol, but be unable to describe it in the narrow contexts of the questioner. Right? 🙂

Metaorthopraxy

It is not every day that one gets to coin a new word, or even attempts to, but today I have done it: Metaorthopraxy.

If you have been following the comments on the post, The Masters and Some Mutterings, you will have noticed Asher’s lovely espousing of orthodoxy. Classically, this means having the ‘correct opinion’, often as defined by the leaders (dead and/or alive) of the tradition you are working within. Traditionalist and esoteric understanding of orthodoxy (which is where Asher is coming from) is that there are eternal verities in the Universe, Truth(s) with a capital ‘T’, which do not, cannot change, as they are beyond temporal and contingent conditions. Different religions and different traditions may refer to these Truths (or not) by different names, conditions, myths etc, but they are still there.

These days the Western Esoteric tradition largely rejects orthodoxy, though there are essential underlying beliefs within the Western tradition that reflect these eternal verities. Most practitioners of magic and Neo-Pagan traditions have seldom thought or elucidated these, but they are there nevertheless within their underlying beliefs and hidden dogmas. Antoine Faivre has explored these well and I have related them to the Golden Dawn tradition here. Please be clear; I am not saying these underlying Western Esoteric beliefs are the Truth, only that there are eternal verities that these beliefs reflect and refer to. An example of one is just to the right of this text, in the words of the sainted Martin Luther King Jr.

Orthodoxy is very much out of vogue in the West today for a lot of reasons, some of which of course have much merit. Rarely however does the Western Esoteric literature mention the sheer simple beauty of orthodoxy, even in its classical setting of correct belief – the surrender of personal ideas, egos, beliefs to a higher, spiritual force. I mean, just on a practical level, we all need to surrender our egos, and here is a wonderful way to do it. Like I said – not much in vogue, eh? 🙂

Western esoteric traditions tend more towards orthopraxy – correct action, or correct practice. This is a trait found more in Polytheistic religions than monotheisms which tend, naturally towards orthodoxy. Individual schools, traditions, lodges and Orders often develop their own orthopraxy – methods of practice that adherents to the school must practice correctly. Many sadly even suggest their way is the only way, creating a very rigid orthopraxy indeed where all outside the group are effectively seen to be operating on three cylinders at best.

My own understanding is that there are no discreet ‘correct practices’ per se. However, for practices to be effective they have to follow essential formulae and ‘rules’. Just as we cannot boil water without somehow exciting the H2O molecules a fair bit, normally by the application of exterior heat. Hence my term for western esoteric thought: Metaorthopraxy. The addition of the Greek suffix, ‘Meta’ for “after”, “beyond”, or “with” showing that the underlying principles beyond the practice are important, not the form of the practice itself.

An example of Metaorthopraxy:

All spiritual practices if they are to be effective have to follow this basic pattern:

  • Firstly, they have to strengthen our boundaries of the box of everyday consciousness; make us strong, know who we are – grounding is the typical way of doing this.
  • Secondly, they have to then focus on the reality of what is beyond the box of everyday existence – Goddess, God, the One Being, Mystery, and allow us to surrender to be guided by that power. To give over ourselves to the higher. To begin right in the name of God.
  • Thirdly, they have to at some point move us out of our box of everyday life – a transition of consciousness, guided safely into something OTHER, something beyond our current ego identity. This may be a state of meditation, the touch of the Goddess in a ceremony of communion, an interaction with an unknown aspect of ourselves. But it has to be something different, outside our normal frame of reference. And this interaction has to be undertaken in balance.
  • Fourthly, they have to return our consciousness into the box and re-strengthen the boundaries with care.
  • Finally, they have to give thanks to the One, the Mystery beyond the box and promote our gratitude towards the One, to encourage us to form and maintain good relationship with God.

I am not sure who will use this term, or even if I will. But it has codified a stream of thought into a single word. Which itself is not always useful. I do sincerely hope however, western esoteric people begin to understand better their own beliefs and practices. This can only result in greater understanding between people, which I think all, orthodox and otherwise, would support 🙂