“We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out.” – Robert McCammon
I remember when I was six years old and I saw my first magic film. It was a cinematic adaptation of a Russian fairy tale about Ruslan and Ludmila. I was absorbed by the screen and transported into an enchanted forest inhabited by tree sprites, fire spirits, mermaids with painted skin and green hair, talking birds and dancing bears. I was there alongside the princess Ludmila, when she was abducted by a sorcerer-dwarf with an enormous white beard, when she fought off his army of elvish-blue guards with silk pillows, and when she escaped into a forest of white reef corals, and made her way across a bridge of floating ice. I didn’t understand much about epic battles between good and evil, but I knew that I didn’t like the sorcerer-dwarf and that I felt immediately drawn to the wise, old magician who lived in the forest and could communicate with the animals and resurrect the fallen hero with the elixir of life.
After I became a serious intellectual and an activist, I still continued to read stories and watch films about magicians, wizards and enchanted worlds, but in secret, embarrassed that someone might discover my inclinations toward escapist fantasy. In fact, there was nothing escapist about it. It was only after many years of engaging with revolutionary theory and practice, and with psychoanalysis, eastern spirituality and western esotericism that I was able to glimpse that the hidden link between all of them was magic. A twofold magic that inhabits our everyday life.
Magic is all around us, but we often lack the eyes to see it. Children have those eyes – to them sticks are magic wands, trees rustle their leaves to point in the right direction when lost in a forest, and animals speak in secret languages. They look upon life with joyful fascination, they are giddy when butterflies land on their arm to deliver hidden messages, they believe gardens become inhabited by fairies at dusk, when no one is looking, and that they can fly and journey to the stars, in their dreams. It’s by rediscovering these moments of enchantment and awe that we can break the consensus trance of routine, boredom and disillusioned survival, which inhabits the daily reality of most adults. The magical perception of the world is a doorway, a threshold through which we can step into mystery and reconnect to the murmurs of the universe.
We live in a world made up of countless systems of social and personal control, which tirelessly weave the illusion that we are alone, defenseless and powerless to change our lives. Aside from the metaphorical sense of learning to see the world with enchanted eyes again, there is a second, more profound sense in which magic can reveal the hidden depths beneath the surface of life. And this second sense no longer has to do with an enchanted perception but with developing the will. In a sense, every attempt to achieve liberation is a magical operation. Magic is about directing the will and harnessing and channeling power. Magicians (magi – the word refers to those who are masters or adepts) can pronounce secret words, point their fingers, and their will is immediately materialized in the world. The power to throw off the shackles of external circumstance and to create your life according to your own desires is what everyone secretly dreams of; it is the power revolutionaries and activists have fought for. And yet so many attempts to change the world miss the mark because those who agitate for external transformation have not succeeded in transforming themselves – they are conflicted and tossed around like leaves by winds blowing in a thousand directions, they possess an unquenchable fire that moves and sometimes consumes them, but which they can’t master because they lack a stable core of inner strength. As all magicians and alchemists know, self-mastery is the first truth of creating any substantial transformation in the material world. The alchemist can only change base metal into gold after going through an internal process of purification and transmutation, by decomposing all the elements of the conditioned personality and recreating a new self from its ashes. All magic is first of all about transforming the psyche and mastering the art of balancing elements and energies within oneself. The magus is an adept who has achieved wholeness and sovereignty, and is no longer swayed by the whims of contradictory drives or unconscious impulses.
Unfortunately, this isn’t how most people view magic. The three common stereotypes are (1) of Houdini-like, charismatic stage illusionists who perform mere tricks and sleight of hand; (2) of wise, old wizards who bend the laws of nature through miraculous acts, but who exist only in fairy tales and flights of imagination; (3) or of witches, who may or may not have actually existed, but who essentially dabble in goetia or the conjuring of demons and dark powers to do their bidding through spells and by cooking unspeakable things in cauldrons. Although there have been serious studies of magic by anthropologists (notably, Frazer, Mauss and Malinowski), their definitions pertain more to shamanic practices of so-called primitive societies. Anthropological studies uncover a magical-superstitious world view that is ascribed to a lost prehistory of civilization; they do not engage with the scholars and adepts who have used the word “magic” to refer to their own systems of mastering and expanding consciousness. In other words, the anthropological interpretation of magic is a definition imposed from the outside, with the negative stigma of the primitive, rather than a self-valuation. Something similar can be said about the religious interpretation (and persecution) of magic. The word “magic” has been used by religious authorities in a mostly polemical sense, to denounce pagans and pantheists for not recognizing the one true God who has created and rules over the world from somewhere above our material realm, and for claiming to enter into direct communion with divine power.
It is in Renaissance Europe, in the neo-hermetic tradition, that magic is first used as a positive self-definition. Hermeticism was an esoteric school that evolved in Alexandria from the first to third centuries AD, based on works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which fused Egyptian magic and Greek philosophy. The focus of these writings is on the underlying oneness of all things in existence and on the alchemical purification of the psyche. Alchemy, understood as the transmutation of the gross, material body (symbolized by lead) into higher, more refined forms of energy (the body of light symbolized by gold or the sun), is the preliminary key to theurgy – the art of uniting with the divine consciousness that permeates the cosmos. The Hermetic tradition fell into disrepute and went underground with the rise of Christianity, but it resurfaced again in the 15th Century when one of de Medici’s scouts discovered manuscripts belonging to the Corpus Hermeticus and brought them into Italy. Two prominent Renaissance scholars translated and wrote about hermetic magic, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Ficino changed the common stereotypes of magic, by dispelling the myth that it had anything to do with the profane invocation of demons, and showing that it was about the human microcosm coming into alignment with the divine gifts and virtues hidden in the natural world. Pico took this a step further by fusing hermeticism with the natural sciences and the Jewish Kabbalah, which was the beginning of a neo-hermetic, hybrid approach that resonated with the European mindset and the scientific fervor of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (even Isaac Newton became an adept of hermeticism). In the 19th century hermeticism was resurrected again by Eliphas Levi, who added elements of Tarot and yogic philosophy to it. His pioneering work traces magic – defined as the science of realizing direct union with the divine – as the single principle behind all the different mystery schools and the secret, heretical teachings of the great religions. Levi’s books greatly influenced the Theosophical movement, as well as Aleister Crowley and the contemporary hermeticist Franz Bardon, who both highlight parallels between magic and the Tantric traditions of India. In the 20th century a further mixture of psychoanalysis became infused into the neo-hermetic approach, and psychoanalysts and transpersonal psychologists also became open to its influence in turn. From these convergences, it’s possible to delineate six characteristics of magic, as it has been defined from the inside:
1. The underlying axiom of the magical worldview is that there exists a single life force or a common energetic substance that permeates all things in the cosmos. This is very far from the understanding of god in most religious traditions, so it’s more correct to describe it as a spiritual or holistic perception of reality than as something religious. According to different traditions, this has been called orgone, chi, mana, prana, or akasha. Akasha, a Sanskrit word for aether, which was subsequently taken up by hermeticists, theosophists and modern pagans, refers to the fifth element that makes up the cosmos, and can be imagined as a kind of subtle mental-sonic vibration from which the other four elements – earth, water, fire and air – have emanated. The difference between dense matter, emotions, thoughts and spiritual states of consciousness is the frequency of their vibration. From this first axiom, there follows a second principle – that there is an underlying unity between all things in existence, beneath the surface duality that is visible through ordinary perception. The most famous maxim expressing this correspondence is Hermes Trismegistus’ “as above so below,” which is usually invoked to point out the unity of microcosm and macrocosm. Because of the fundamental connection between the human microcosm and the macrocosm of the universe, causes on one level affect the other level.
In the context of this single, underlying substance, there’s an important parallel between the western neo-hermetic tradition and eastern Tantra – both reject the notion that the material world is an illusion (maya), the division between spiritual discipline (sadhana) and the enjoyment of the world (bhoga), and practices of abstract speculation and asceticism. There is no division between the physical and the spiritual, or between the material, subtle and causal fields. Everything – every particle that makes up rocks and plants, every cell in the body, every thought and emotion, are all expression of the divine principle. Hence the aim is to experience the fullness of all life – not to banish or repress the body and the passions but to spiritualize and transmute them into higher, more subtle forms of energy.
2. The ultimate aim of magic is achieving union with this fundamental oneness or divine principle of all life. This does not simply mean having conceptual knowledge of it, or brief illuminating moments of feeling oneness with all things and then lapsing back into an ordinary perception of separation. Magic is called the “great work” because it is a long and patient process of building up one’s cosmic nature in order to assimilate and become the perfect expression of the divine principle, at all moments of one’s everyday life, by how one lives and interacts with others. This is something recognized by magical traditions, yogic philosophies and transpersonal psychology alike. In the latter, it is invoked by distinguishing between states and stages (first invoked by Roberto Assagioli and elaborated in the later work of Ken Wilber). Children experience states of oceanic connection, not only while in the womb but also in their first years of life. And many people have had mystical experiences when confronted by the sublimity of nature, or in psychedelic trips, and feeling their consciousness has expanded beyond their previous boundaries. But brief flashes of oneness and even visions of other dimensions (which are seen by psychics and those who have had near death experiences) are states of altered consciousness – they are essentially transitory and ephemeral. They are not necessarily transformative, in the sense of sparking a significant transmutation of the structure of the psyche, or a radical decision of the will to completely transform one’s life. The true aim of transmutation is to rework “peak experiences” through reason, analysis, the faculties of understanding and the will, and one’s ethical sense of relating to others – in other words, the real work is to integrate them and move forward to a higher level of self-development. Another way of saying this is that everyone is potentially one with the divine principle of the cosmos, this correspondence is there in seed form as a latent capability, but actualizing this seed of potentiality requires a lot more than a momentary flash of expanded awareness.
Attaining unity with divine consciousness is known by different names according to various traditions – correspondence with one’s genius, higher self, holy guardian angel, luminous body. In an yogic context it is usually understood in terms of having a full kundalini awakening and then further integrating it into one’s life. This union is neither conceptual nor metaphorical but alchemical. Many magical traditions, from hermeticism to tantra and transpersonal psychoanalysis (Jung and Assagioli), practice visualizations in which there is an assumption or incorporation of godforms or archetypes inside one’s own body. Different traditions use a similar visualization technique of first imagining one’s own body to expand and fill the godform or archetype, and then reducing the godform to the size of a seed and implanting it in the body. The idea behind this assumption is that it is a kind of visual initiation ceremony that awakens latent possibilities in the body as well as in the psyche. In this way an entirely new and integrated personality can be first imagined and then progressively brought into being. The process of active union with the divine is understood as a progressive metamorphosis rather than as a momentary flash.
3. Before becoming an expression of the divine perfection of the macrocosm, the magician needs to work on perfecting the individual microcosm of the self, which requires a complete overhaul of one’s personality. The immediate aim of magic is attaining self-mastery, which is achieved by balancing energies on three levels – the physical-magnetic body (which includes balancing the four elements and the chakras), the astral realm (which includes working with emotions and changing unconscious patterns of behavior) and the mental realm (developing latent powers of concentration and the will). This overhaul of the personality represents a disentangling or de-conditioning from the attitudes and restrictions that have been inherited from the family, the educational system, and one’s culture and ideology, which place limits on personal power, on what someone is able to achieve. This inner alchemy requires transmuting whatever is detrimental and restrictive in the personality, in the sense that it limits the potential of the seed developing to embody the divine principle.
4. In terms of actual practices and concrete exercises, magical systems of transmutation focus on developing the latent powers of the mind by cultivating concentration, visualization and the ability to enter into trance states. Concentration is common both to western hermeticism and to eastern meditation and yogic practices. The habitual mind is troubled by all kind of conflicted states of doubt, sadness, restlessness and boredom because it is divided and dwelling in duality (should I do this or the other, I want both a and not-a). A concentrated, one-pointed attention is the key to expanded states of consciousness and is also behind most peak experiences that people commonly have (being absorbed by nature, by dancing, by music, by performing a sport, by falling in love, by the smile of a child). It is, in the most simple terms, the ability to silence the multiplicity of conflicting, run-away thoughts by focusing the mind on a single point – and this one-pointed focus in turn gives rise to a kind of mystical attainment, to a union of subject and object. Developing the ability to visualize or see through an inner (third) eye is necessary for strengthening the powers of the imagination and intuition. Eliphas Levi highlights this as the most important skill of the magus. It is the key to practices like the assumption of godforms, archetypes and the four elements into the body, and it is also necessary for the projection of consciousness into external objects and for mental traveling and astral projection. Both concentration and visualization are altered states of consciousness, but they’re not exactly trance states, which are marked by moving into a different brainwave (theta) that opens the gateway to enter into direct communion with the lower self (what most people think of as the subconscious) and the higher self (the anima/animus, inner guru or atman self). This is what hermeticism calls gnosis – a direct knowledge of and communion with the divine through intuition rather than reason. Gnosis can be achieved either by inhibition, by progressively silencing the mind until only a single object, sound or thought remains, or by excitation, by raising the mind to a very high pitch of excitement through dancing, drumming or incantation, which is more common in shamanic journeying and certain tantric rituals. Although all of these practices focus on developing the latent powers of the mind, and on expanding consciousness, there is an important byproduct – they simultaneously develop the will. Levi considers coming into alignment with the will the most important attainment of magical practice. Magicians are masters because they can change themselves and their environment at will.
5. There is an important focus on ceremonies, initiations and other rituals, which are means of dramatizing intentions and imprinting them on the lower self (or subconscious). Ceremonies and initiations are rare, special rites of passages, which signal an important transition from one form of life to another, from one stage of self-development to a higher one. Rituals are somewhat more ordinary and mundane, since they’re primarily characterized by their frequent repetition. We all have rituals, most of which are unconscious habits that do not serve us – like smoking cigarettes, heading for the refrigerator whenever we’re bored or restless, or watching tv to dull the mind after a difficult day. Rituals are necessary in our lives because they give a structure to what would otherwise remain a chaos; they make us feel safe and balanced. The question is not whether to adopt rituals or not, but which kind. Magical practice shifts the focus to rituals that empower rather than weaken, and which can be used to enchant and sacralize our daily life rather than create a mundane stream of boredom. One simple example of this is conscious eating, in which gratitude for the food is expressed, and there is a corresponding visualization of a certain intention (which activates the akashic principle) that is incorporated into the body along with the food. This changes both the emotional resonance of the act of eating by activating the heart chakra and the feeling of connection with the life force expressed in the food, and it also induces significant changes on a biological-cellular level.
6. In ceremonies and initiations, as well as in daily rituals like meditation, concentration and visualization practices, there is a focus on symbols (triangles and pentagrams in hermeticism), letters and numbers (the Jewish alphabet in the Kabbalah), and sacred sounds like mantras and gestures like mudras (in yogic practices). On a certain level, the repetition of certain symbols, gestures, and sounds works because it functions as a form of autosuggestion that can imprint certain beliefs on the subconscious. But there is more behind this than just self-hypnosis, which can best be understood in relation to the underlying axiom of correspondences between the microcosm and macrocosm. Symbols function as a mirror of the sacred geometry existing in the cosmos, and postures and gestures function as their seals, as something that joins two substances together as well as an imprint of the image. The term mudra actually means seal, and as a ritual gesture it is meant to join together the postures assumed by various divinities and certain hand gestures – so by reproducing them, yogis can cross between different planes of reality and assume the divine principle in their own body. The pronunciation of sacred letters and mantras also have their origin in this correspondence. They are based on the belief that there are subtle letters and occult sounds (vibrations) that every being in the universe is made up of, but which are beyond what can be heard by human ears. On our plane the relationship between word and object is no longer direct, but mediated and discursive; the words in different languages are just re-presentations that are far removed from the object. Sacred letters and mantras aim at restoring the sound to a primal state in which the sound or letter no longer evokes a re-presentation or image of an object, but the living power (shakti) in it. In this sense, it becomes the voice of the thing itself, as it reverberates in the form of a cosmic language. Focusing on the intention behind the mantra is important – it is not an empty repetition of a random sound (although this can also work on a certain level simply by focusing the mind); but to actually incorporate the principle it expresses, the power of the mantra must be awakened.
I confess, I stumbled upon magic by chance. Or synchronicity. Some visions in my meditations, which are more like shamanic journeys, and the symbols that came spontaneously to me prompted me to enquire and look further. Google helped. It sent me to exactly the right links that helped me discover practices and theories to make sense of my experiences and fit them into a more comprehensive understanding. Stumbling upon the history of hermeticism allowed me to see the mostly intuitive process of self-transformation that I had embarked on for the past 3 years in terms of coherent, logical stages that evolved naturally, one from the other. My approach has been backwards, in the sense that I found theories that confirmed and deepened my experience, after the fact. I wasn’t looking for a system to change my life and I wasn’t in that incessant, hungry, searching mode – of hoping to discover that next quick fix or the ultimate method, which is so prevalent in today’s spirituality industry. Or, at least, I wasn’t in it anymore. It was after I gave up searching that many things fell naturally into place through a process of intuition and inner guidance. The systematic approach that is presented in this book evolved out of my inner experience rather than external learning, although I do present theories I discovered, both before and after, that help to frame it better, in terms of recognizable signposts, and make it cohere as a system. The vision that it was a coherent system only came to me retroactively, from hindsight, after going through different stages in a more or less blind and groping manner. I was able to see the logical transitions between the different stages of self-transformation and decipher their meaning only after I had already traversed them.
1. Self knowledge
Before speaking of the transmutation of the personality, of fulfilling our highest potentials, and of tapping into latent physical and mental abilities, we need to acquire a deep knowledge of the I (or the many I’s) that constitutes our personality and sense of self. One of the central imperatives of magical systems, transformative philosophies and various psychologies has been: “Know thyself,” as it was written on the temple consecrated by antiquity to the god of light. Over the course of millennia, different traditions from Stoicism to Buddhism and anarchism have depicted our lives as snared in illusions that prevent us from truly living. Gurdjieff used the term “sleepwalkers” to emphasize that although we believe we are conscious and have free will, we live more like automatons, and our personalities are just a sum of mechanical responses to codes programed during our childhood. Acquiring self-knowledge is a difficult and painful task because it brings us face to face with the realization of how much of our lives is entirely beyond our control, and is rather a makeshift construction out of ideas and roles and behaviors that we have internalized, unconsciously, from others. The preliminary work of any alchemy of self-transformation is one of disintegration, of taking apart the unconscious elements of our identity, which prevent us from coming into our own power. It means questioning everything – every convention, belief and rule that governs our behavior. Most of the absolutes we cling to are revealed as nothing but dust and air.
There are many traditions of de-conditioning through self-observation, from Buddhist vipassana, to the tantric uses of transgressive rituals (in which the task is not to give into or identify with the passions, but to see them in a detached way, as if from the outside), to the use of prosoche by the Greek Stoics, and Gudjieff’s self-remembering – what they all have in common is a similar process of breaking identifications with habitual behaviors and inherited ideologies. After a long-term affair with vipassana, I stumbled upon Gurdjieff’s method, which has been more useful or at least has resonated more deeply with me. The idea is not to start with eyes closed and allow all thoughts and sensations to pass without judgment and simply be in the moment as an external watcher, but to begin in the middle of things, like a scientist with a magnifying glass, with one’s eyes fully open, and begin noticing and probing and analyzing the most obvious details about one’s body, expressions and behaviors, which are also visible to others. There is a similar approach with other forms of detached observation – of neither identifying nor judging or condemning what is observed – but it goes beyond the detached awareness of simply noticing, and involves more analytic, introspective processes (or extrospective processes since they are seen from the outside as “it” rather than “I”) . There is also a systematic progression, starting from observing the body or what Gurdjieff calls the moving center (postures, ways of standing and sitting, gestures, ways of speaking, facial expressions, nervous ticks), and then moving to more complex layers – daily habits we unconsciously engage in, painful emotions, dominant moods, and habitual thoughts, including recurring negative thoughts, which can be traced back to deeper core beliefs. By passing on the other side of the identified doer to become the detached observer, our unconscious identifications are brought to the light of awareness and progressively weakened.
What becomes obvious as one enters more deeply into self-observation is the extent to which our ideas and behavior are influenced by negative emotions, such as fear, guilt, shame and resentment. In this context, it’s useful to recall Spinoza and Nietzsche’s diagnosis of how negative affective states are trained in us because those who exercise power over others (power as domination) need to create sadness among their subjects. The sad passions represent the lowest degree of our power (power as potential to act); they separate us from who we are and what we are able to do and they alienate us from each other. It’s when we are most alienated, at the lowest ebb of our power, and at the mercy of circumstances and feelings we can’t control, that we’re delivered over to the mystification of rulers. The effects of the sad passions on the body are obvious. Their constricted states lead us to paralyze the diaphragm, to hold the breath, to hunch the torso – creating what Willhelm Reich called a muscular armour that blocks openness, communication, spontaneity and pleasure. Negative emotions also disrupt the body’s natural rhythms and energy flows and impair the function of the organs; even science has come to acknowledge that many illnesses have their source in the energy imbalances brought about by the sad passions. Most people live in opposition to the flow of the life force (orgone, chi, prana), which cripples their bodies, affective power and relations with others.
It seems natural that as we begin to realize we’re under the spell of habits, emotions and beliefs that are negatively affecting our lives, and that are preventing us from actualizing our power, that we should want to change things. And in our western, consumerist mindset, which emphasizes a vast diversity of choice and the imperative of maximum speed, perhaps it also seems natural that many people tend to latch onto whatever promises the easiest, quickest solution or whatever has the most fame on the market. The self-improvement/spirituality industry is flooded with countless techniques – chakra attunements, reiki, shamanic healing, hypnosis, Reconnection®, the Journey®, psych-K®, SoulKey®, etc… – which promise to balance our energies or get rid of our bad habits or instantly shift our beliefs, with very little work required on our part. But many of these are, at best, a palliative that remove some immediate pain or discomfort without dealing with the overall causes of the condition. What all promises for quick fixes and painless cures bypass is what has been the highest goal of ancient philosophical schools, eastern spirituality, transpersonal psychology and magical systems of transmutation – the imperative to deeply know oneself, in all dimensions, especially the most painful. In older esoteric traditions, the art of self-transformation was recognized as a long, difficult, and patient work, and as part of a coherent, unified system. Today many different esoteric traditions – from tantra to hermeticism and theosophy – have been smashed to a thousand small fragments that are sold on the market, while completely cutting off and repressing their original, holistic contexts. The hype surrounding the law of attraction is one of the best examples of this superficial fragmentation that has been recast through a western consumerist logic. There is more to conscious manifestation than vision boards and emotionally charged autosuggestion – the term “law of attraction” was first used by theosophy but the practice of conscious manifestation has been the “secret” of different esoteric systems and mystery schools that trace back thousands of years, and what they all recognize is that it becomes possible once the self has undergone different stages of transmutation and has become sovereign – and thus is no longer pulled in different directions by subpersonalities, contradictory drives and unconscious motivations. Without this self-mastery, attempting to consciously manifest our desires is useless or, at best, a hit and miss process, since what will usually manifest is not what we consciously desire but some unconscious resistance that contradicts it. And after attaining self-mastery, the nature of desire changes so completely that manifesting a shiny red Corvette or a mansion with a swimming pool become meaningless – the adept realizes those things can’t bring lasting satisfaction. It is only by absorbing one of the magical systems in their entirety, and passing through the long process of disintegration, revelation, re-integration, and transmutation that we can find real fulfillment and a sense of genuine power that comes from our own self-expansion. Everything else is giving our power away to someone else – or even to something else, a mere technique or a tool – that promises to help save us.
This first stage of acquiring self-knowledge has several aims: noticing our main identifications, dominant moods and recurring thoughts, analyzing and taking apart the building blocks that make up our personality, coming face to face with our shadows – those qualities that we usually disavow, repress or project as “faults” onto someone else – and creating a twin mirror of the personalty, which assesses both our best qualities and highest gifts as well as the biggest weaknesses, faults and stumbling blocks. The double nature of this mirror is necessary to highlight the connection between the two sides. Often a weakness is just a flip side of a positive quality. And most repressed shadows are attempting to fulfill higher needs that have something positive at their basis, which is why they can be transmuted into gold. The emphasis during this first stage is on cultivating a detached observation that goes beyond simply noticing but delves into analysis and engages with the process of reasoning and deduction – but with an aim on patiently seeing and accepting things in order to break their hold rather than wanting to change them out of a sense of self-dissatisfaction. Going through a process of de-conditioning widens the cracks in our consensus reality, which enables us to become less attached to our beliefs and ego-fictions, and thus makes them easier to let go of. But the actual work of transmutation comes in the later stages. It is important to first cultivate a patient observance and acceptance to counterbalance the restlessness and un-ease that most people feel with themselves.
2-3. Communion with the Lower Self & Higher Self
Self-observation may be useful but also has its limits – it tries to break free of the mind by using the mind and it cultivates a detached, ascetic observer that has severed the bonds to emotions. For all of Gurdjieff’s injunctions to disown our many fragmented subpersonalities and refer to them as “it” rather than “I” – these splintered fragments resemble wounded children and chronicling them patiently is not the best way of comforting their tantrums. Self-observation is a necessary first stage for breaking identifications, which are false connections arising out of fear and lack. But once these identifications are broken, something other than the detached, rational gaze of the scientist-sage is needed to re-create the self as a sovereign being capable of genuine connections based on empathy and generosity. It is necessary to invoke a different kind of intelligence, the intelligence of the heart – the electromagnetic field around the heart, which is thousands of times more powerful than the brain – which has been studied by science, and is the common focus of many yogic practices, Buddhist metta meditation, and the intoxicated love cultivated by the Sufis. In terms of embodied practices, this means shifting from a detached self-observation to exercises that activate the heart chakra to induce affects of love and communion. This heart focus is also common to therapies that seek to connect the adult personality to the lost inner child – both in order to allow it to heal its wounds and also to tap into the spontaneous joy, curiosity and magical perception of life that children possess.
The next two stages require a dividing and re-uniting of the self. There are many traditions that envision the self as a trinity – perhaps the most familiar, and the also the most inaccurate, to my mind, is the psychoanalytic division into the ego, id and superego. A more comprehensive trinity is invoked by the transpersonal psychologist Roberto Assagioli. Assagioli was a student of Jung’s (though he came to criticize many of his theories), and was also a Kabbalist, a mystic influenced by the hermetic tradition, and a world traveler who studied Raja Yoga in India. His theory of psychosynthesis, which draws upon all these influences, was especially important to later transpersonal psychologists, especially Ken Wilber. Assagioli’s tripartite division of lower unconscious, the conscious “I” or the seat of the personality, and the higher unconscious matches the Kabbalistic triad of Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, as well as the esoteric distinction – common to the Hawaian-Huna tradition and much of new-age though – between the lower, middle, and higher self. I prefer the Kabbalistic and esoteric terms, and find the use of “unconscious” to be inaccurate. The point of transpersonal therapies, mindful practices and magical transformations are to make what is usually unconscious conscious, to bring it to awareness. The common use of “the unconscious” makes it seem like some dark region of our brain that’s bound to remain forever hidden (both Freud and Jung implied as much). Using the term unconscious to talk about an experience of heightened awareness – the communion with both the lower self and higher self – is misleading. The word unconscious is only helpful as an adjective or adverb, as one might talk about tying shoelaces unconsciously, which implies it’s possible to change perception and consciously focus on the action.
The lower self (Nefesh) is the raw psychic power of what most people think of as the subconscious, and it is directly linked to the physical body, sensations, emotions, the world of nature, and its cyclical patterns. It is the storehouse of instincts, biological processes that keep the body alive, and memories. Most theories see it as originally simple and innocent, something like an animalistic or childish self that is naturally curious, playful and simple about expressing its emotions. The middle self (Ruach) is what most people think of as the ego personality. It is the sense of the self or the “I” that we create as we go through life, experience the world and interact with others. It is our vision of ourselves (or persona, in Jungian terms) and also the seat of our ethical sense and capacity to make decisions. This middle, conscious self, by having certain certain traumatic experiences, and learning repeating the same choices of behavior, creates habits and distorted perceptions of the world (complexes or neuroses), which get passed down into the lower self and disturb its natural harmony. The lower self can be imagined as a pool of water. The complexes and neuroses that are formed by the conscious “I” and then passed down create unruly ripples on the surface of this pool that prevent it from accurately mirroring the world of its experiences. These complexes acquire a semi-autonomous existence within the lower self, as mini-entities or subpersonalities, most of which we are unaware of but simply experience as strange moods that come out of nowhere and hijack us. The creation and perpetuation of complexes is the cause of most aspects of human suffering. And the goal of de-conditioning is to un-clutter the lower self of these patterns of volatile emotions and neurotic reflexes, which create disturbed ripples in its pool and prevent the conscious “I” from actualizing its potential and coming into its authentic power. The higher self (Neshamah) is the divine aspect of our consciousness that is in communication with the divine principle that permeates the cosmos, but on a higher, more subtle level, that beyond the material world of nature and its patterns and cycles. The higher self is constantly trying to make itself known to the middle self, indirectly, through intuitive flashes, signs and dreams. The goal of the great work of magic is the direct communion with the higher self, which is a deeper form of dialogue and interaction that is initially reached through meditative, trance states but eventually opens a channel so that it can flow freely in normal, everyday awareness.
Here it’s useful to invoke Ken Wilber’s “pre-trans fallacy,” which is also found in the earlier work of Assagioli, though in more imprecise terms. There are many altered states of consciousness that are pre-rational and pre-personal, and in which an intuitive feeling of oneness with the divine occurs – this can range from feeling a mystical oneness with nature to clairvoyance, seeing auras, or having near death experiences. For Wilber these states are either prior to the emergence of the personality, or completely below reason, rather than beyond or above it. Children experience them naturally. And as Bataille wrote, so do animals. His theory of religion (which is more accurately called a theory of mystical experience) harkens back to a lost feeling of unity, a kind of oceanic consciousness that he calls being like “water in water.” Primitive humans once possessed this and animals, in their pure timeless simplicity, still enjoy. For Wilber these kind of romantic, nostalgic visions of mystical experience end up elevating animalistic, infantile and regressive states into types of spiritual enlightenment. It is a kind of anti-intellectual romanticism that ends up affirming there’s no such thing as spiritual (or even psychological) evolution, since everyone is already one with the divine. Hence there are also no meaningful distinctions to be made – for example, about what constitutes spiritual awakening, or enlightenment, suffering, abuse, domination, inauthentic power – since everything is always already god, love and spirit. Wilber draws a sharp distinction between pre-rational mystic states, which are prior to or outside of reason, and their subsequent integration through reason and analysis, by a process of questioning and overturning beliefs. I would add that their integration is only possible by transforming the will and one’s daily actions. It is only after their integration that mystical states of consciousness can surpass reason and become trans-rational and transpersonal. I see Wilber’s distinction as aiming to dispel the common assumption that it’s sufficient to have mystical visions and momentary feelings of oneness and connection, and that there is nothing else to be achieved because these states automatically create a spiritual transformation and people begin, spontaneously and without any effort, to live a good, fulfilling, more generous and more ethical life.
The point of magical, yogic and transpersonal systems of transmutation is to affirm the necessity of the patient work of a systematic dis-integration of the complexes and neuroses that exist in the lower self, which limit what the conscious self is able to achieve, and re-integration by rebalancing the elements and energies of the body-psyche nexus. The sign of transmutation is not having isolated mystical experiences but being able to transform the will so that the direct communion with the higher self – and all that it entails in the sense of transforming one’s everyday life – is something that can be actively willed and achieved out of one’s inner power rather than being dependent on external circumstances or chance or grace. Transforming the self to achieve inner harmony will then automatically affect one’s relation to others. This doesn’t mean that desire ceases but that it is transformed, and it begins to flow out of a feeling of fullness, vastness and generosity instead of needing to relate to others out of a sense of lack because they fulfill something that is missing (like recognition or approval). Alchemical transmutation means traversing the different stages, from observation and analysis to dissolution, which de-compose the chaotic inner workings of the mind, and then to a process of recombination and re-integration, in which the self is able to recreate itself, rebalance its energies, and develop the will. This is not a linear process but more like a spiral, since there are returns to new moment of disintegration, further analysis, and further processes of re-integration. The alchemy of self-transformation requires clearing the psychic baggage that is still carried over from previous traumas, which cause deficiencies in the four elements and blocks in the body’s energy flows. These blockages are a literal hardening and constriction that prevent cosmic energy from flowing smoothly through the human microcosm. There can be no active union with the divine unless this energy is able to pass unrestricted through the body.
Later sections of this book detail my own experience of communion with the lower and higher selves, although I believe it is the structure enabling the communion that is important, after it is established, everyone’s experience is bound to be highly idiosyncratic, based on their own memories, associations and meaningful symbols. By establishing these communions, I feel like I’ve simultaneously split and integrated different parts of myself. In Kabalistic and other cosmogonies of creation (or emanation), there is an original all (or nothingness) that is identical to itself, which decides to split into three in order to come to know itself. The split is necessary since there can be no knowledge through self-identity, only through otherness. There is a sense in which this split into three selves has allowed to me to have a relationship to myself as other, or as two others, which has produced a deeper sense of knowledge and also a more compassionate form of relating (especially to the lower self, which always takes the form of my 6 year old self). The communion with the two other selves has given me both an inner radar and an inner guidance, so I feel I can resolve anything that comes up in life, no matter how painful or distressing. After establishing the initial connections to the lower and higher selves, the remaining work of the later stages is to balance all the elements and clear energy blockages, which will be elaborated in the later sections of the book. I have done this work by visualization and the assumption of archetypes because this matches my own inclinations – I find it easy to see images and I like stories and journeys, but I find it difficult to identify with abstract concepts like elements in their pure form or the spinning energies of chakras. But regardless of what techniques are used, the purpose of the later stages of the work is to attain sovereignty or self-integration. It is only by attaining sovereignty, so that there’s no longer a split between conscious intention and unconscious resistance, or between different subpersonalities pulling the self apart in different directions, that a authentic will comes into being (in my experience there’s a huge difference between will and willpower – will is something most of us are lacking, though I think we’ve all experienced willpower, see https://profanelight.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/the-luminous-will).
It’s now possible to understand the two senses of the word magic that were invoked in the opening paragraphs more concretely. The magical perception of the world, which is common to children, as well as adult experiences of the sublime and the psychedelic, are essentially about an altered perception or an altered state of awareness. These are important because they can reconnect us or put us in brief contact with the lower self, or the magical inner child, which is frequently absent from the daily lives of most adults. This child is not our dark shadow but the golden shadow that we’ve banished under the imperative to grow up and be reasonable and fit into the world, but it still surfaces through momentary flashes. According to my own experience, which is confirmed by esoteric teachings, the communion with the lower self, and the re-connection to the sense of joy and playfulness (the energy of the second chakra) is necessary before any communion with the higher self is attempted. The second meaning of magic is attaining authentic inner power or sovereignty by balancing contradictions and harmonizing energies. It entails the development of latent powers of consciousness (or super-consciousness) and the emergence of the will. These two meanings of magic are far from being identical, but they are inherently linked. The first is a preliminary glimpse of the feeling of oneness and union with the divine on a physical-emotional-energetic level that is linked to the energies of our planet. The second meaning of magic deepens this mystical connection through the faculties of reason and the will, it is something on the mental-causal level, and it is the beginning of a transmutation that will bring significant changes in one’s everyday life and relations with other beings. The gap between the two meanings is the difference between a magical perception of the world and the alchemy of self-transformation.
[References or further reading: Franz Bardon, Initiation into Hermetics; Antoine Faivre, Western Esotericism; Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Kundalini Tantra; Roberto Assagioli, Psychosynthesis; Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality]