Essays in the Tim Maroney Web Collection
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The Book of Dzyan
Definition of the Sacred
Descent: A Meditation
Even If I Did Believe
Facts and Phallacies
The Freedom of Doubt
Healing The Spiritual Community
Hekate and the Satanic School
Introduction to Crowley
The Included Middle
A Letter to Close
The Problems of Syncretism
Theory of Divination
Why Crowley Doesn't Suck
Why I Study Magic
This essay is an exercise in introspection. A friend recently asked me, "Why are you into magic?" There is no single answer. I will try to explore various motivations, both my own and what I imagine others' to be.
I am motivated by a quest for knowledge, that is, by curiosity. I'm an intellectual type and I like to be able to formulate clear ideas about things. My spiritual experiences are very hard for me to understand. I don't even have a good concept of the scope of the subject. What is the spiritual? Is it a group of psychological faculties? Or an arbitrary semantic convention that conflates dissimilar phenomena? Is it a value judgment masquerading as an observational category? Or does it indicate some underlying psychological or metaphysical reality around which we revolve, whether we know it or not?
I can't answer these questions. They may not ultimately be answerable, because spirituality seems to take us outside the realm of reason. However, by doing ritual and meditation by myself and with others, and observing in a phenomenological mode - that is, accepting mental phenomena as real without regard to their accuracy or defensibility - I feel that I am getting closer to understanding parts of the continuum of spirituality. At least I am asking better questions than I used to. My curiosity about the spiritual has become a goal in its own right, whether or not this curiosity furthers my own spiritual development; the spirit has become a subject for psychology.
Largely as a result of my interest in spiritual experience, I have become interested in related subjects, such as the history of occultism and the social dynamics of spiritual groups. I find that spiritual practice and group membership provide useful resources and observational opportunities to further these studies.
This is all very interesting, at least to me, but by itself it is only "the dogs of reason." There is more.
My interest in magic is not from the armchair, at least not exclusively. I meditate, I do yoga, I attend and perform various rituals by myself and in groups, as well as reading voraciously in occult, pagan, and philosophical subjects and in general religious studies. Why would anyone spend time on such apparently futile activities? From the outside it's all a lot of mumbo-jumbo.
One of the popular answers among ceremonial magicians these days holds that "I'm a trance junkie," or "I'm a ritual junkie," or words to that effect. The meaning is "I derive pleasure from the effects that ritual practices have on me and so I seek them out." This formula would be part of my answer, but I wouldn't characterize myself as a "junkie": I like to modify my consciousness but it's not the central axis of my life and I don't depend on it (at least, I don't think I do).
Many traditional mystics would be appalled at the "ritual junkie" idea. It contrasts with traditional ideals of redemption through spiritual practice and says simply, "it feels good, so I do it." However, many traditionalists also hold out ideals of redemption that fall onto the reward-punishment spectrum, such as eternal bliss or perfect happiness. The simple rewarding nature of spiritual practice, the fact that it induces pleasurable mental states, is the Great Unspoken (or Nietzschean pudenda) of mystical theory. It's a motivation that mystics have always had but wouldn't admit to, or that they held at arms' length by issuing stern warnings against it. If the pleasure principle turns spiritual practice into a kind of masturbation, I would answer that we're no longer so opposed to the art of self-pleasure.
Still I think there is more to spiritual practice than pleasurable diddling. When I first got involved with magic in my mid-teens it had a lot to do with psychedelic drugs. My goal in magic and meditation was to trip without chemicals, and I still enjoy that when it happens (say, from a good hatha yoga session), but I've also come to share the concern that this can be a kind of "spiritual materialism," to use Chogyam Trungpa's term. Getting off is good but it's distinct from and may sometimes even be in opposition to spiritual progress. Even with drugs there's more going on than direct reward through bliss. Basic assumptions about the world and the self are thrown into a different light from which they may be re-examined, where before they were not even recognized as assumptions, but thought to be facts. The process by which we create our personal image of the world is illuminated and the limits of our consciousness are shown to be self-imposed; we are exposed to "other forms of consciousness completely different," as William James wrote of his nitrous oxide experiences. This has the potential to broaden our mental scope, just as travel broadens our social ideas.
Another Great Unspoken about spiritual practice is ego. Just as it's pleasant to one's self-image to be distinctly strong of body, so it is to be strong of mind. The self-esteem benefits of exercise are desirable but they often go too far. I've grown tired of "magic jocks" who measure their self-worth by the intensity of their ritual power. The size of one's muscles is no measure of physical health, and "roaring like a blast furnace" in ritual is no indication of mental health. In fact people can seriously hurt themselves by going ruthlessly for maximum strength. Some strength is good; for some people a lot of strength is good; but health is more a matter of overall balance, flexibility and tone than of ultimate capacity in one area. When someone is devoted heart and soul to a particular system of spiritual symbols there may be a tremendous ritual power in that, but perhaps the system itself becomes one of those unexaminable assumptions, Blake's "mind-forg'd manacles we bear," that spiritual practice ought to be helping us deconstruct. Quietism is a bit namby-pamby but to be a mighty dragon ever thundering also has its problems.
"Spiritual progress" is an important concept to me but I find its meaning elusive.
I am not drawn to traditional ideas of initiation. In systematized magic or mysticism spiritual progress is divided into initiatic levels, or numbered stages of progress. I can't accept these scales of development, including the binary scale of enlightenment or non-enlightenment. People are not numbers and if you tell me "so-and-so is a third degree" you have told me exactly nothing about them. These systems and distinctions are too impersonal, and too many people seem to be hurt by them rather than helped. No one is more unenlightened than those who are convinced of their enlightenment.
A similar scale is that of salvation, where a person is saved (1) or unsaved (0). To me there is entirely too much emphasis on redemption in traditional scales of progress whether they use the words "redemption" and "salvation" or not. The "first matter" or non-initiate in traditional magic is held to be utterly worthless: blind, fettered, desperately in need of the system to show him or her the light. Obviously this is insulting and serves the purpose of maintaining hierarchical social structures. Just as obviously, though, there is some metaphorical truth to it. Relative to the later and developed state, the earlier and undeveloped person is burdened by blinders that look like glasses, and hobbled by chains that feel like shoes. More than how we look at others, this is how we look back at ourselves.
The problems for me in the black-and-white version of the metaphor are that this conflates different people's relative states, and requires self-loathing on the part of the initiatory candidate. If we had a way to measure someone's illumination - which we don't - I think we would find that many perfectly ordinary uninitiated people are less deluded than many seekers who have been strenuously applying themselves to the mystical path for years. A confident and healthy person would find little appeal in being superior to everyone else because of initiatory ceremonies, but among "initiates" one constantly encounters just this demeaning attitude. Similarly, a healthy person who found that a system demanded abject self-abasement to questionable "superiors" would probably select themselves out in short order. These hierarchical formulae appeal most strongly to people who - to be blunt - already hate themselves, find their negative self-image confirmed by being treated as the worthless "first matter" of the art, and achieve comfort in having the onus of their low self-esteem displaced onto "uninitiates."
I find better company in people who are not plagued with unreasonable self-doubt and who recognize and work with their strengths. I wish our spiritual systems selected for them instead of weeding them out. American hatha yoga instruction has gone in this direction, though once one moves on to more spiritual limbs of yoga the old demeaning hierarchies tend to reassert themselves. More needs to be done in reforming the teaching of meditative practices.
I am only describing a general trend and not tarring all initiates with this brush. I am an initiate myself, though once again it is not the axis of my life. I simply want to express that I would be more comfortable with spiritual systems that start with the basic strength and insight the person already has and develop that, rather than starting with the need for redemption. A better metaphor than removing a blindfold would be teaching the initiate how to make binoculars. I think groups starting without the "original sin" of the "first matter" would be less likely to attract neurotics and exagerrate their neuroses, and so less prone to the infighting that wracks magical groups.
So I will move on to my personal idea of my progress. Although it is tangible to me, I have a hard time saying exactly what it is. I know it has resulted from psychotherapy, from yoga, and from re-examining and redefining my assumptions, especially assumptions about relationships with others and with the external world in general. There is an aspect of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, a willingness to express myself spontaneously and embrace my feelings rather than trying to manipulate myself, an emergence of a mental quiet space, a recognition of personal patterns which previously were unconscious or denied, and a number of specific personal advances that result from being freed from unexamined patterns and from a distaste for myself. There's a long way to go and there may not be any end to the path, or it may be that the path is longer than I could walk in this one lifetime (so far as I know, the only one I have), but I know I am on this path and have come a certain way so far.
Magic in the sense of ritual has not been all that useful to me in this kind of progress and I have come to distrust it as affording a scope for acting out and for compensatory ego-inflation. That is, the intentional nature of ritual may unconsciously enact a neurotic pattern while rewarding limiting patterns I would do better to transcend. When I do ritual now, on the other hand, erosion of my mental blocks and acceptance of my aspirations have made ritual more effective in transforming my consciousness than it used to be. So ritual magic is related in some way to spiritual progress and may at some future time become more of a vehicle of my development than it is for me now.
I am attracted to an exercise model of development, in contrast with grandiose conceptions of redemption and ascension through spiritual degrees. Concentration, imagination, steadiness, even power are useful things to have. My analogy to physical exercise is deliberate: there is value to "spiritual bodybuilding" so long as it doesn't degenerate into vain self-admiration. Where a traditional conception would hold, for instance, that "by ascending the Ladder of Lights the devout seeker may be admitted into the innermost Mystery that maketh man God," under the exercise model one would say "by practicing mental disciplines one strengthens, balances and cleanses mental faculties." Yoga obviously fits this model, even in its highest limbs; classical yoga scripture depicts the ultimate goal pragmatically as the stilling of thought-waves. Psychotherapy is also a fairly good match, where the faculty exercised is spontaneous introspection. Ritual magic exercises the abilities of concentration and visualization, as well as the ability to transform perceptions of space, and a host of others. This too is a kind of progress.
I don't mean to sell short transcendental models of progress. I'm uncomfortable trying to reduce, for instance, my devotions to Hecate or Pan to mere exercises meant to strengthen whatever parts of the nervous system are involved in bhakti. There is something missing from the exercise model but the usual metaphysical models are vapid and do nothing to satisfy my intellectual desire for understanding. Still I must attend to the fact that "reason is a lie; for there is a factor infinite & unknown; & all their words are skew-wise" (to quote Crowley's "devil or angel" Aiwaz.)
Mystical experience deconstructs ordinary modes of thought and makes us aware of the fragility of intellectual concepts. The best scientific models appear as frail girders strung out thinly through an immeasurable abyss. Existence is biological, not intellectual - even inanimate matter or empty space is more richly layered and subject to more powers and forces than we could ever hope to enumerate. No idea ever truly captures any phenomenon.
It is a mystery why intellect works at all, or what it means to say that it works. No one knows what "natural laws" are and scientists have mostly given up on the question. It's possible to create mathematical theories that mechanically generate predictions that turn out to be more or less accurate within their very limited domains. We don't know what the accuracy of a prediction means or what it means to measure the results of an experiment or why equations should make accurate predictions. These questions continue to baffle philosophers, who have turned to petty squabbling over inconsequential ramifications of their pet notions. Two millenia have passed and no one knows how to answer Pilate's question. What is truth? We just make theories, measure their results, and stick with the ones that make predictions we find useful or interesting. We imagine we are being "rational" when we are following instincts that we may never understand.
In me these intellectual instincts are relatively strong and so I seek a psychology of the spiritual, but I know it will always fall short of the living whole that is spirituality in the real world. So I am not obsessed with turning every experience rational. Paradoxically, too much focus on the rational would undercut the rational approach to psychology that is called phenomenology, which accepts mental phenomena in themselves witout judging them by a standard of intellectual accuracy. To seek a spiritual experience is to seek a full experience, not an equation. The experience is "organic" in that it is deeply layered, ever-changing as a fundamental characteristic of its existence, subject to a non-enumerable set of subtle interconnections and dynamics, and rich with odd resonances and self-similarities that suggest meaning without explaining it. By contrast an intellectual theory is cold, static, simple, declarative, and dry.
The heights of philosophy are less intellectual than spiritual. They convey in prose poetry an opening to the organic experience, a transcendence of the plodding and ordinary, a new world of cognition with unfathomable breadths and depths. That they do this while appearing rational is another mystery. Here is where philosophy becomes a true quest for wisdom and escapes the trivialities of the academy, and gives me a reason to study it.
Of course every experience is organic, a deeply complex play of patterns in the nervous system. What distinguishes everyday experience from spiritual experience? One model, expressed most clearly by Naranjo and Ornstein but derived from Eastern philosophy, and easily discernible in Blake, is that we are prone to filter experience down to its dregs, leaving only a pale shadow of the original. That is, our everyday experience is deliberately de-organified, with "nonessential" details removed so that we can concentrate on "relevant" information. Spiritual experience results from lowering these filters, which requires control of the faculty of attention, which requires exercise.
There are other means. Psychedelic drugs can be used to disable filters, but this is not a method I use much these days. I've learned to compensate for them now and they don't scramble the filters the way they used to. (I can't use nitrous oxide as an anesthetic either - I'm a savvy enough tripper to recognize pain, thank you very much.) Ritual uses symbolism to gain control of the faculty of attention and ceremonial magic uses visualization to develop this control, and so ritual magic can be used to break through to the symphonic or organic experience. Nature in all its fractal depth is also evocative of organic experience, and while I do not currently practice Thoreau's walking method of transcendental meditation I hope to start.
It would be sad to find that spirituality is just activation of the neurological "spirituality circuit" and I don't think that's likely to happen. There are no final answers to questions this complex. But it's likely that there are neurological correlates to spiritual experience, and finding them may create a bizarre (perhaps Gigeresque) fusion of technology and spirituality. At the worst, we'll be able to cook up better drugs; at the best, we'll provide people with willed technologies for spiritual activation, perhaps through bioengineered glial cells or such.
Many ritualists and mystics would postulate another mystery, that the inner experience controls the outer under certain circumstances. This would explain psychic powers and spell casting. I don't believe in these things, though my opinion isn't set in stone. I've seen many remarkable coincidences but I believe that is what they are, although often they are so striking I think there must be some mysterious connecting factor. I sometimes do rituals for particular purposes but I don't expect the result to happen "supernaturally"; it's more like voluntary self-programming, or even just an acting out of commitment. I do these purposeful rituals rarely as I generally feel I have my life reasonably well under control and I don't need to rely on magic. For instance, on those rare occasions I can't make a choice rationally, I may do a divination using the Yi Jing. My ordinary purpose in ritual and meditation falls under the exercise model. The organic experience sometimes comes spontaneously in the course of exercise and I rarely try directly to induce it - though if it comes I'm likely to repeat the exercise!
Finally the subject turns to spiritual groups. Like many of my friends, I have concerns about the intellectual stagnation of the members of these groups, particularly in the occult and pagan communities with which I have the most acquaintance. They claim not to be dogmatic but their members share many unexamined assumptions which they defend with intense hostility when they are called into question, however politely or reasonably. Systems of belief are seductive. I am frightened they will seduce me and repelled when I see others who have been seduced. Looking back on my personal history I can remember times that I fell into rigid systematization and I am ashamed. It's very satisfying to have all the answers but it chokes off the potential for independent thought. Now I am determined to embrace my own ignorance and the intrinsic ambiguity of the world, without abandoning my quest for knowledge.
Groups are hard for me because of my idiosyncracies. People become hostile because of my heretical positions on issues that are close to their hearts. In addition, I find much of the ritual work in these groups is so poorly done that it enters the realm of the patently offensive, like superhero comics or situation comedies. Finally I have personal mental blocks about group membership that derive from my intellectual distance from other children in school and the utter divergence of my interests - mostly scientific at the time - from theirs. I do not expect to fit in and in some ways group integration is a very threatening unknown. I admit that I have been known to act out when I seem to be starting to integrate, which does not always make me the most pleasant company. It takes a lot for me to admit that I like to have a group of friends. Given all this, one would think that I would avoid groups altogether, and for years of my life I have. During the current decade (the 1990's) I have been closer, though. There have even been a few months of heavy involvement here and there. Why?
In brief I know of three reasons. One is educational. I learn about spirituality through contact with others. Topics of study include ritual practice, social dynamics and the role of belief. I learn about methods I would otherwise never encounter, or only read about. I am an O.T.O. member at the moment because it gives me an opportunity to observe and take part in rituals due to its relatively liberal admission policies; if not for that I might never have a chance to study initiation, which is so important to many people.
The second is social. While I might at times deny it, there is something compelling about fraternal dynamics, something more than hanging out with one's friends, even though it is also that. I do not understand this very well yet but I only have the opportunity to study it by belonging to a group. In addition, there is a great range of variation, and I sometimes meet wonderful people who share my unusual interests. I don't know where else I would meet such people.
I suppose I would lump the sexual in with the social. Almost all my girlfriends have had some occult or pagan involvement. Given my own degree of personal involvement and the general social prejudice against occultism there might be problems otherwise. I don't know where else I would meet suitable partners. But perhaps this assumption reflects some insecurity in myself. I'm a pretty reasonable and accomodating person and could probably come to terms with any spiritual person, occult or otherwise.
Third and last there is the experiential aspect of spirituality in groups. This differs from solitary practice in many ways. In the past I hoped for some balance to my natural reclusiveness by matching solitary practice with group practice, but I have found over time this is based on something of a false distinction, and I no longer feel motivated by the idea of equilibration. This is only a quest for external redemption. So what is different and worthwhile about ritual in groups?
A good group ritual can transform the space more powerfully than most solitary rituals. Something about the group affirmation of the change of space brings in a whole new dimension that is only rarely attained in my private rituals. The energy is thick, hanging almost palpably in the air. This is a remarkable experience and often a very rewarding one. (I feel embarassed by admitting this, as if I should defend my solitary practice, which does transform space. Perhaps I err in saying that group ritual transforms space more, rather than differently.) A bad group ritual, though, can evoke revulsion and offense, whereas a bad solitary ritual is usually only disappointing. I don't have bad trips in solitary ritual or meditation, but I can leave a poorly-done group ritual absolutely furious. In any case, the range of ritual experiences is expanded in groups and so is my understanding as a participant-observer.
There are no doubt a dozen reasons I am leaving out or would not admit to myself. I find that after almost five years of psychotherapy I still can find it hard to discuss my feelings simply and straightforwardly, especially about matters I have such strong feelings about. I hope some of this makes sense and perhaps, my patient reader, even helps you understand some of your own reasons by contrast or comparison with mine. See you in circle!