I am here linking a video I recently published to YouTube. In it I read a portion of part 2 (“The Universe as We Seek To Make It”) of Aleister Crowley’s “An Essay Upon Number.” This “An Essay Upon Number” was included in Crowley’s The Temple of Solomon the King, which itself was included in the A∴A∴ periodical The Equinox, specifically Vol. I, No. 1. “An Essay Upon Number” was also included in Crowley’s 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley.
This essay or article, published September 1, 2021 in and by Thelemic Union, is one I penned exploring the problem of dogmatism and codification in Thelema and for Thelemites generally. Below I’ve reposted it, so read on and enjoy.
I’ve been accused a few times of trying to turn Thelema into something it’s not, of attempting to somehow create for myself a type of Thelema that fits my own version of how this philosophy and spiritual path should operate. While I’ll concede that I’ve come to terms with The Book of the Law and many of Crowley’s writings in my own way, I don’t deny other Thelemites their own personal understandings of Thelema, so I ask: why should you deny me mine?
In fact, why shouldn’t there be as many versions of Thelema out there as there are Thelemites? “Every man and every woman is a star,” after all, and if this is the case, and we are, after all, in our own particular orbits, going forth and shining brilliantly (like such stars, as Crowley analogized) as individuals as we do so, why shouldn’t we each get to determine for ourselves what this path means for us?
“Every man and woman is not only a part of God, but the Ultimate God,” Crowley once wrote. Indeed, he stated that “the Individual is the Autarch” in Magick Without Tears, and noting that, wouldn’t this autarch, let alone Ultimate God, have some say in what they can reasonably decide to think?!
In fact, Liber OZ states unequivocally that “man has the right to think what he will” Notice, if you read OZ, that there is no addendum to the “think” clause. (Or any of the others, for that matter.)
A lot of this probably seems redundant, but I bring it up to make a certain point: there seems to be this trend in Thelema that there are increasing numbers of Thelemites present in our community who assume there is an orthodox and orthopraxic take on the path that needs to be believed and practiced in a certain way by other Thelemites, respectively, in order to even make them Thelemites. However, we shouldn’t need to codify the path for others, and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, let’s begin at the beginning, so to speak (emphasis mine). “Do what thou wilt shall be the WHOLE of the law,” we read in the various Thelemic texts, most notably Liber AL. It is, as we see the whole of the Law, the whole law, and, furthermore (emphasis mine), “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” These phrases, taken primarily from The Book of the Law, seem to be insisting that there’s really no dogma in Thelema beyond the Law of Thelema itself. What, then, do we make of the rest: the issues of deities, magick, mysticism, planes, Qabalah, tarot, and all the other cognate topics Crowley wrote on?
I would say that beyond the Law itself, the rest of the Thelemic system, inasmuch as it is a system, is made up of strong suggestions at best, and minor suggestions at the periphery.
For many Thelemites, this rank of importance may look like something akin to taking TheHoly Books of Thelema, or the Class A texts—and namely Liber AL—most importantly, and placing the rest of Crowley’s writings on a secondary rung. But of course, we can’t be certain of the beliefs or practices of all or even most Thelemites: I’m only speculating here.
Regardless, a common theme is that there’s a thing for hanging onto every word Crowley wrote, even if it was a footnote in a diary, as if it’s infallible dogma, at the very least among some Thelemites. Now I’ll admit that Crowley was naturally and most likely a good judge of his own experience, especially when it came to things like, say, the practice of ritual magick, or the reception or writing of Liber AL; additionally, as the founder and chief source of primary material on Thelema, it makes sense that one would look to his work for information on the topic. And so no one can blame you for lending him an ear on the various subjects making up the Thelema-sphere, but ultimately there’s no topic which Crowley wrote on for which he is the infallible guide. Crowley is not some kind of pope, and his word is not to be believed without questioning.
As he himself wrote (emphasis mine): “I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle.”
He also actively praised doubt, as, for instance, in The Book of Lies: “I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.”
The dogmatism that, whether actual or simply a misrepresentation, appears to be an aspect of Thelema, drives some people away from the path. It has certainly driven some to chaos magic, which often appears (and perhaps rightly so) to onlookers to be a less precept-leaden alternative.
Part of rejecting blind dogmatism when it comes to Thelema is learning to appreciate the context in which Liber AL, TheHoly Books, Crowley’s works generally, and works on the topic of Thelema more broadly, were written, as well as learning to appreciate Crowley’s biases and potential errors and the biases and errors of various Thelemic authors. No-one is incapable of committing a logical fallacy, or committing one to writing. Additionally, knowing when it’s best to utilize reason over faith is extremely helpful. (This isn’t to say faith is never warranted.)
It’s also a fact that Crowley published a number of contradictions in his writings—that, or his opinions on things changed over time—and so, if one is to believe him on the reality or falsity of certain topics, one may actively have to choose which “Crowley” to believe.
This then brings us to the question: what exactly do we believe Crowley on at all? And why? Again we are met with the fact that the whole of the Law is laid out for us very simply, in one phrase (and its follow-up: “Love is the law…”), and the rest of the system of Thelema, inasmuch as it is a system, is at best a series of exhortations to believe or practice in a particular way or from among a certain spectrum of ways. Yet an exhortation is not an absolute demand, and we are led back to the fact that we are only ever to do something if it is our true will.
This is why I actively cherry-pick Crowley, and why I make no fuss about other Thelemites doing the same. Crowley wrote so much material, some of it in which he changes his mind over time, some of it in which his views have become dated, some of it in which his views appear simply to clash with what we know about the universe, and some of which, most importantly, one simply may not agree. And, given that “man has the right to think what he will,” should one not only admit into one’s belief system those things which one finds meaningful and reasonable?
“Act passionately; think rationally; be Thyself,” we read in Liber Librae. How can one act passionately if one has no individuality from which to act, if all one’s actions (or more specifically spiritual practices) are informed by the opinion of one man, as opposed to differing sources or one’s own ingenium? And how can one think rationally if, instead of placing critical thinking at the helm of one’s operation in the world, one places blind faith in stultifying and uncompromising dogma, for which one would refuse to see any alternative? And how can one be oneself if, instead of being defined by going along their own particular path through the universe, they simply tread Crowley’s (or someone else’s, for that matter), instead?
I recently published this essay as an article in Heart in Hand, an Odd Fellows blog by the wonderful Ainslie Heilich. Please enjoy.
WHAT IS ODD FELLOWSHIP? WHAT IS THE I.O.OF.?
In 2018 I was initiated into the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) at an Odd Fellows lodge in my town, under the 0°, White, or Initiatory degree. It was me and two other candidates being initiated that night in the lodge room, if I remember correctly.
The month leading up to my initiation I had been scoping out the Order, getting a feel for its history and customs, its tenets and traditions, the members of this particular lodge, and what participation in the organization actually meant.
The I.O.O.F. has a long history, and is one of America’s oldest fraternities. In fact, its history stretches back even further than the founding of America itself. One of the oldest secret societies in the world, the early history of the organization is bathed in obscurity, with some even claiming that there were Odd Fellows as far back as the time of Roman emperors’ reigns. (This claim is quite dubious, however.)
Others say that Odd Fellowship evolved out of the European medieval guild system, and that during the 12th through 14th centuries guilds for those who practiced “odd” or irregular trades began popping up, thus leading to the existence of Odd Fellowship, albeit informally. (Freemasonry is similarly tied to the medieval guild system, which supported stone masons during the Middle Ages.) Various lodges and halls for Odd Fellows are documented as having existed from 1650 onward, a number with their own charters and oaths and some with particular rituals and traditions.
Regardless of when, exactly, Odd Fellowship was established, there were numerous Odd Fellow societies in England by the 1700s. These eventually made their way to the United States, where in 1819 Thomas Wildey founded the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) in Baltimore, Maryland. The I.O.O.F. was an American breakaway from the British Independent Order of Odd Fellows–Manchester Unity, founded in the Manchester, England area in 1810.
Several different Odd Fellows lodges existed in New York City around the time of the founding of the American I.O.O.F., but the I.O.O.F. has since become the largest organization of Odd Fellowship in the world, with two other major branches today existing alongside it: the aforementioned Independent Order of Odd Fellows–Manchester Unity, and the largely African-American Grand United Order of Oddfellows Friendly Society (G.U.O.O.F.S.).
The oath of the Odd Fellow has long been one of aid to society: its historic command is, “Visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” It should be known that Odd Fellows societies essentially functioned as life insurance agencies before such a service came to exist in society. However, this is not to diminish the fact that Odd Fellowship teaches aid and relief of the distressed as virtuous traits, that by loving kindness and compassion the world is made better.
In 1851 a degree system for women, known as a the International Association of Rebekah Assemblies (or simply the Rebekahs) was instated within the I.O.O.F., and while many women joined, the regular lodge system of the Odd Fellows, once reserved only for men, and the Rebekahs, once reserved only for women, have since become co-ed.
It is quite true that the I.O.O.F. acts as a consistent form of aid or insurance for its members, and so the perks of joining are valuable, however, it offers subtler, deeper benefits as well, in the form of moral growth. (Which, to me, means psycho-spiritual growth.) Ritual drama in the form of initiation raises members to better versions of themselves, ingraining in themselves moral and philosophical tenets that can be brought to aid society at large.
The I.O.O.F. and, indeed, all Odd Fellow organizations are by and large service organizations and to a substantial extent charities: some of their primary objectives are to help others, alleviate suffering, and otherwise benefit the downtrodden. Typically, efforts are made to improve the local community wherever an Odd Fellows lodge is located.
From an outside perspective, those with an eye for fraternalism might see the I.O.O.F. as standing somewhere between a benefit society and a spiritual or ethical empowerment organization. In recent years certain sects of the Odd Fellows have morphed into organizations that look more or less like Rotary Clubs rather than guardians of any sort of arcane wisdom. However, I don’t believe that can be said of all of Odd Fellowship, and in my experience certain aspects of Odd Fellowship are spiritually, socially, and psychologically beneficial.
It was with a spiritual undertaking and a curiosity in whatever wisdom the Odd Fellows were preserving that I decided to join them.
Initiation and initiatory ritual is important in nearly every secret society and Western esoteric or fraternal order, and is a process whereby one is bestowed a kind of status not had before the rite. From a Thelemic perspective it is “the journey inward” (as per Crowley), and ideally affects a change in consciousness, a raising of the perspective to a new height by the revelation of some discreet truth or wisdom by means of the language of symbol and ritual drama.
I can certainly say that there was some element of all of this present in taking my White degree. And, while I am bound by oath and secrecy not to divulge a number of the particularities of my initiation, I can give a general idea of some of the symbols employed and lessons imparted, at least insofar as what they meant to me.
This initiation also had a certain character to it given that I am a confirmed Minerval (0°) in Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), another secret society and fraternal order, and a baptized Thelemite and member of its eclessiastical arm Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, the Gnostic Catholic Church. The fact that I assent to many of the ideas put forth by the receiver or writer of The Book of the Law, Aleister Crowley, and the novel ideas inherent to Thelema and the New Aeon, both meshed and clashed in interesting ways with what I discovered about Odd Fellowship.
As an aside: for those Odd Fellows and others reading who are unfamiliar with Thelema, Thelema is a system of spiritual progress, philosophy, or mystical new religious movement initiated by the writer Aleister Crowley in 1904 which declares that every human being has an inherent nature, will, purpose, and plan in life known as the true will, and that by methods of spiritual development known as magick and mysticism, one can bring this true will to light from the depths of the unconscious. Thelema also holds that each person is intimately connected with a personal higher self or “genius” known as the Holy Guardian Angel, a guide to the true will, and that union with, knowledge of, and communication with this entity or nature may be necessary for discovering the true will. Ordo Templi Orentis and its ecclesiastical arm, Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, base their conduct around the foundational text of Thelema, Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law.
In the I.O.O.F. system, there are four basic degrees, several higher degrees, and various side or “fun” degrees. There are also auxiliary degrees traditionally meant for women, as well as the aforementioned organization traditionally meant for women (known by one name as the Daughters of Rebekah, or simply the Rebekahs), as well as youth lodges, organizations, and the degrees that come with them. The four standard or lodge degrees are the Initiatory or White degree (0°), the Friendship or Pink degree (1°), the [Brotherly] Love or Blue degree (2°), and the Truth or Scarlet degree (3°).
Anyway, leading up to my initiation I was taught first, if I remember correctly, about the three links, or the three-linked chain, the primary symbol of Odd Fellowship or the I.O.OF.. This image includes three chain links, often each of a different color, each signifying one of the primary principles of Odd Fellowship: friendship, [brotherly] love, and truth. (Amicitia Amor et Veritas.) These links are joined together, essentially to show their inseparability. This is as if to ask: how can they exist apart?
These ideas being established as the basis of the Order, I was told that the only requirement to join was belief in a supreme being.
Now my view of deity has always been complicated, and I sometimes find myself coming around to the agnostic view, but a lot of the time I’d say I hold something like Spinoza’s view of God, or of panendeism, of a transcendent yet interpenetrative force that gave rise to and is yet one with the established cosmos.
Would you call a force, such as that which may have produced the Big Bang, the same as a being? What separates the two? Consciousness? Well, I have no way of knowing whether the thing that is the basis of our reality is conscious or not, so I choose to be silent about it. That explanation seemed good enough for the Odd Fellows at my local lodge, and soon they allowed me to initiate.
So, not to go too much into detail of the initiatory ritual itself, but the White degree seemed relatively brief, included some rhyme schemes, and much of it I spent hoodwinked—that is, blinded by a spectacles-like device known as a hoodwink—as well as bound to some degree, if I remember correctly. (It was several years ago, and I may be confusing this bondage with that of another rite I underwent. Forgive me if I’m misrepresenting anything here.)
I recall several symbols which, now that I know, are particularly important within the context of the White degree: these include the eye of God, the scythe, the skull and cross-bones, and the triple-chain, mentioned above.
The chain we’ve briefly covered, and I’ll do so in more depth below as I discuss the issues of being at once an anarchist, Odd Fellow, and Thelemite; so next let’s look at the scythe:
A great blog on the topic of Odd Fellowship known as Heart in Hand makes some interesting remarks about the symbol of the scythe to the initiate Odd Fellow. In an article on the symbol, author theconductor1819 writes, “One of Odd Fellowship’s most recognizable symbols is the scythe. As you saw above [the article includes a video of a man utilizing a scythe in a video above this text], it can cut grass, but its most important job is to harvest tall crops like wheat. To understand the rural imagery of the scythe it is important to understand its job in field work as well as the notions of sowing, growth, and reaping.”
The author explains that the scythe is associated with the Roman deity Saturn, who himself is associated with time and its passage, and therefore the insubstantiality of events. Note that the hourglass, as a symbol for impermanence and the passage of time and fleeting nature of things, is also an important symbol to Odd Fellows.
The author also notes the most important aspect and use of the scythe, for harvesting or reaping, and it is in this sense that the implement is associated with the grim reaper, the personification of death who comes to reap the living. Yet the scythe not only reaps life. In a sense, it is the reaper of thought, action, and everything else that comes to fruition as a result of causation.
As the author writes:
“The scythe with its rustic simplicity is bound to the statement “As you sow, so shall you reap,” a notion found throughout world civilizations. For humans to live, we must produce. We must produce food so we may eat. We must produce thought so we may evaluate and bring ideas to fruition and then begin again. Universal law is very specific: if you plant wheat you will harvest wheat—not beans. Our whole life is a farm with sowing, growth, and reaping.
“It is important to see the scythe as more than an implement. Its shape and the job it performs in the context of farming has lessons for all Odd Fellows. It is used not merely to reap golden grain for the sheaf, but, in the field of mind, heart, and soul, to gather every precious stalk, every opening flower, every desirable fruit. We must encourage an affluent and exuberant harvest for body, mind, and the communities we serve.
According to the Davis Odd Fellows Handbook (or Pledge Book) of Davis Lodge #169 (updated June 2010), “The Scythe reminds us that as the grass falls before the mower’s scythe, so we all fall before the touch of time.”
What of the skull and cross-bones? This symbol seems fairly straight-forward enough, in that it symbolizes death, but let’s look at what the American Folk Art Museum has to say about it.
“The skull and crossed femurs, or thighbones, is an image that dates to antiquity and functioned as a memento mori, a reminder that everything that lives must die. The symbol was used by several fraternal groups as a sober reminder of the importance of leading a moral life. It was also part of the Odd Fellows ritual of rebirth. As one Odd Fellows monitor noted, it was the symbol “perhaps…used most frequently, in both sacred and profane mysteries, as a means of impressing the mind with a realizing sense of the seriousness of the end of life.” One regalia catalog listed plaques similar to this one as “emblems to hang in lodge room” that were sold as one piece in a set of sixteen or eighteen emblems.
“The skull and crossbones appears frequently in Masonic contexts as well. It serves as a focal point in a “chamber of reflection,” an anteroom outfitted with arcane symbols intended to encourage deep self-contemplation before a candidate begins his degree.”
The Davis Handbook has this to say of the skull and cross-bones: “The Skull and Crossbones remind us of mortality and warn us to so conduct ourselves on earth that Heaven may be our reward hereafter.” (I personally wasn’t happy with the necessary inclusion of an Abrahamic afterlife, being a Thelemite, but I chalked this up to a particularity of this lodge and its specific handbook, not necessarily the I.O.O.F. or Odd Fellowship as a whole.)
Lastly we have the open and watchful eye of God. Now, as I said before, it was only stated to me that to be an Odd Fellow one needed to be a supreme being. One did not need to assent to the idea that that being was necessarily conscious: however, the eye being open may suggest a kind of consciousness, albeit not necessarily.
The Davis Handbook puts it this way:
“The All-Seeing Eye represents the eternal presence of the eye of God upon all of us, night and day.”
This sounds quite a bit like the Abrahamic God, the deity of Yahweh/Jehovah who judges sin. (And, of course, sin simply does not exist in the Thelemic view, nor is there a being who judges it.)
Writing in Heart in Hand, Odd Fellow Scott Moye goes into the particulars behind the symbolism of the open eye of God in Odd Fellowship:
“In older various forms of ancient symbolism, we often see a symbol showing one eye open and one eye closed. The closed eye of course refers to the subjective internal world of our mind. The open eye refers to the objective external world our mind is engaging. Odd Fellows uses (sic) only the open eye, which in ancient symbolism refers to the objective world.
“So, the open eye does not only represent the All Seeing Eye of the Great Architect. It also shows us that our work–the work of “being Odd” is in the objective world. The world where, with open eyes, we see the impoverished, the helpless, the distressed. The open eye encourages us to look out upon the objective world and provide the help that we can provide.”
Anyway, these were the mainstay symbols that I noticed and recall from my initiation, my taking of the White degree. What this imparted to me was this: God watches us all; all actions, thoughts, feelings, and phenomena have consequences; all life ends and all things are impermanent (very similar to the Buddhist mark of anicca); and in the midst of all this we ought to embrace a life of friendship, love, and truth, bound as one.
“The initiatory degree is required in order to attend an Odd Fellows meeting. With the initiatory degree you are a full fledged voting member of the lodge and able to participate in business meetings. In the initiatory degree you will witness a representation of our mortal existence, which begs the question; “How will I spend my life?” In our modern fast paced society there are many things that compete for our attention. As Odd Fellows we are bound by sacred obligations to extend the hand of fellowship as we are commanded to: visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan. In short you will commit, as an enlightened member of our order, to do your part to build a better world.”
How will I spend my life? I ask myself this, or something akin to it all the time, as a Thelemite. “What is my true will?” is similar enough, and that is the imperative question for every Thelemite. Either way, one is asking, essentially, what one is really to do, now that one is here, alive, on this planet.
And surely death, those skull and cross-bones, make the greatest impression when addressing this question during the initiatory degree ritual. Because not only do you encounter the symbol on a banner, you encounter that “symbol,” after another manner, in much more visceral and real way, right in front of your face.
I won’t go into further details. (For the sake of secrecy, of course.)
Taking my White degree did make an impression on me. It didn’t exactly reveal anything to me I had never considered before, but it reminded me of things I felt were important, though a few (such as the consciousness and watchfulness of God) I either disagree with or at times question.
I was happy with my decision for a few weeks. However, I soon became a bit conflicted.
I quickly began considering my inclusion in the Odd Fellows from the standpoint of both my Thelema and my anarchism (if you’d like to know, I happen to not have a lot of love for the state or capitalism), and I generally found that, for myself—that is, from the point of view of my personal interpretation of Thelema and anarchism—both made me question Odd Fellowship, at least as presented to me on the various Odd Fellows websites and from other sources on the topic.
The way Odd Fellowship had been presented to me at my local lodge, as simply a society centered around friendship, love, and truth, whose members professed the existence of a supreme being (though without qualification) and nothing beyond that simply didn’t hold up to the research I was doing into Odd Fellowship elsewhere. It was becoming more and more nuanced as I was reading more and more about it, and particularly more dogmatic and Christian in its views, to my understanding.
So, I respectfully left my lodge in search of other things.
Below I’ll explain why I feel like Thelema (and to another extent anarchism) may clash with Odd Fellowship in certain ways:
First of all, let’s look at where the very basics of Odd Fellowship—friendship, love, and truth—come in the way of Thelema as I interpret it. In principle they don’t, but by elaboration from various sources they certainly may.
Now the principle of friendship is one that is natural to me. I won’t appeal to any doctrine of spiritual principle for why it is important. It just is. I’ve always tried to be a friendly person, as much of a hermit as I may be these days. As the courts in this country (I’m American) are ideally supposed to treat people as innocent until proven guilty, I try, on days I’m feeling less cynical at the very least, to treat people as friends until proven otherwise. Wouldn’t the world generally be better if we all approached one another in such a manner?
“An Odd Fellow is an advocate of FRIENDSHIP and never looks at people with prejudiced eyes or bases his judgment on outward appearances. He supports the idea that all people irrespective of creed, race, color, nationality, social status, sex, rank and station are brothers and sisters. He does not take an undue advantage of his power or the weaknesses of those around him. He is gentle in behavior and never inflicts pain. He avoids impurity in thoughts and unchaste conduct. He also knows that he should respect himself by following temperance in his desires and fighting against vice of every form, chastity of person, and purity in heart and mind.”
Some comments on this paragraph:
A Thelemite generally regards all human beings as co-supreme Gods like he is, or perceives himself to be, and so brothers and sisters upon earth partaking in the same divinity which is manifestly one with nature. However, to assume that it is never necessary to inflict pain or come into conflict with someone else ignores the plain fact that the Thelemite is also called to defy (or in extreme cases even destroy) those who would thwart his liberty and the liberties of others, as per Liber OZ. (Or Liber LXXVII.) In my view, the confident Thelemite believes firmly sic semper tyrannis. He is not a pacifist, as Ra-Hoor-Khuit, to whom he pledges his allegiance, is a force of war and vengeance against all that which thwarts the (true) will. That is not to say, however, that violence is the immediate answer to a given conflict, but that it may sometimes certainly be so.
So, the Odd Fellow avoids impurity in thoughts and unchaste conduct? (According to their official website it would appear to be so.) This is plainly incompatible with the fact that, as per Liber OZ, which is basically the foundation of Thelemic ethics, “man has the right to think what he will,” and to “love as he will,” so that one may “take your fill of love as ye will, when, where, and with whom ye will.”
The Thelemite also does not follow temperance unless it is his will to do so, though the cleverness and intelligence of a Thelemite may indicate to him when and how he is being ruled by his passions, rather than the other way around. If it is the case that his passions are ruling him rather than him ruling them, then it is natural that he is actively thwarting his own will, and thus necessarily must exercise temperance if the true will is to shine through. This, of course is an if, however, not a must, and the language exercised on the official I.O.O.F. page seemed to imply a certain degree of “thou shalt.” (The sole dogma of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”)
Thelemites do not fight against vice, unless by vice we mean that which thwarts true will. Note what it states plainly in Liber AL (II:52):
“There is a veil: that veil is black. It is the veil of the modest woman; it is the veil of sorrow, & the pall of death: this is none of me. Tear down that lying spectre of the centuries: veil not your vices in virtuous words: these vices are my service; ye do well, & I will reward you here and hereafter.”
Vice, lust, carnal pleasure and joy are likewise the pleasures of Godhead in Thelema. It is God’s, or the universe’s, joy to see our joy and rapture upon the earth. As we are microcosms of the universe, which is the macrocosm, when we experience joy, so does the universe, and therefore God.
Let me be clear: I hadn’t read this extract from the I.O.O.F. website before taking my initiatory degree. If I had, I may have had second thoughts about joining the Odd Fellows. That being said, friendship as a quality is not in opposition to Thelema, and Thelema may even encourage it, so long as that friendship aligns with will.
Consider the second link the chain of the Odd Fellows. Love, like friendship, is important. Very important. Loves of all kind swells in my heart: and I’ve known romantic love, the love of friends, of parents, of acquaintances—even spiritual love.
O.T.O. is very much based upon love. In fact the order operates in the love of the spirit of universal brotherhood, but moreover “love under will,” which is part of the Law of Thelema. (Its paramount doctrine.) Will is essential in and to Thelema, of course, but so is love, particularly divine love (agape), which, it should be mentioned, is not mere sentimentality, but rather union, as implied by the term yoga. (According to Crowley.) This love is understood to be directed by the divine will, yet at the same time synonymous with will.
The I.O.O.F. website has this to say about the love of an Odd Fellow:
“An Odd Fellow is an enactor of LOVE in a way that he feels jointly responsible for his fellowmen and prepared to give attention and help wherever and whenever help is needed. He is a person who treats others, especially women and children, with dignity and respect. He knows the application of sympathy, sincerity, unselfishness, and generosity. He accepts the fact that nothing is perfect but believes that he has an obligation to contribute in making the world a better place to live.”
This is all well and good. There is nothing in Thelema that turns aside our compassion, but rather it is noted by Liber AL that “compassion is the vice of kings.” This can be interpreted in different ways—one way it is interpreted is that, vices being the “service” of Godhead, and “kings” being the enlightened of society, compassion is good and naturally flows from one who is pursuing or has accomplished their true will. Another, more cynical interpretation is that compassion is the last of the ugly virtues—the “good” of the good we are to be saved from, as per the Mass of the Phoenix—if we are to be delivered into true liberty. I chose to believe that compassion is a good thing.
I do not believe that women deserve more attention or help than men by dint of their sex. Woman is God just as man is, and to pity her is to look down upon her as lowlier than the God she is.
As Crowley wrote in his essay “Duty”: “Pity, sympathy and like emotions are fundamentally insults to the Godhead of the person exciting them, and therefore also to your own. The distress of another may be relieved; but always with the positive and noble idea of making manifest the perfection of the Universe. Pity is the source of every mean, ignoble, cowardly vice; and the essential blasphemy against Truth.”
There is nothing written in any Thelemic text which condemns dignity or respect, and, as far as I know, there is nothing in particular written about how one ought to treat children aside from Crowley’s recommendations to the O.T.O. as to how to care for families and kids, wherein it is stated that children should be fostered by the order to grow in freedom to explore their own natures and capacities.
Sympathy, like pity, is not actually empathy, which is the kind of feeling with which a supreme being regards another supremacy.
Sincerity can be addressed alongside truth, below.
Unselfishness is not inherently harmful, but one should never be unselfish at the expense of one’s true will. Of course, it may be one’s true will to be unselfish and helpful, as if, for instance, it is one’s true will (or part of it) to be an EMT or to feed the homeless.
Generosity is not required of the Thelemite, but it is certainly a boon to one who participates in O.T.O. A brother or sister of the order may show their love for their brethren through generosity, of course.
It may be wise to remember what we read in Crowley’s Liber Librae:
“Do good unto others for its own sake, not for reward, not for gratitude from them, not for sympathy. If thou art generous, thou wilt not long for thine ears to be tickled by expressions of gratitude.”
Truth is trickier. It is clear that Odd Fellowship values truth and honesty above most things, but for the Thelemite, while truth and integrity is generally valuable, it is not always necessary, at least I would say. (Granted, there are about a thousand interpretations of Thelema for every hundred Thelemites, so don’t let me opinion on this matter (or really any matter) be the final word.)
The only sin is restriction, according to Liber AL, and beyond this Crowley once stated (In his Book 4) that, “The sin which is unpardonable is knowingly and willfully to reject truth, to fear knowledge lest that knowledge pander not to thy prejudices.”
Yet it is also the case that certain high adepts have the ability, and perhaps sometimes even the responsibility, to utilize falsehood to their advantage or for the “greater good”.
Crowley wrote in The Book of Lies: “The Master (in technical language, the Magus) does not concern himself with facts; he does not care whether a thing is true or not: he uses truth and falsehood indiscriminately, to serve his ends.”
The official I.O.O.F. website has this to state of the Odd Fellow and truth:
“An Odd Fellow is a pursuer of TRUTH and adheres to equality, justice and righteousness. He sees searching for truth as searching for clarity in the sense of his life. Every time a small piece of truth is found, he will try to use it only in ways where he will be able to be true to himself and his fellowmen. Oftentimes, he thinks before he acts and speaks. He knows that, as a human being, it is a fact that he can think. He gives account to himself and knows that before he starts doing something, he can make the choice what to do and can think it over and consider whether the choice was the right one. He believes that making good and well-considered choices is called “behaving in a responsible way”.”
This account seems to fit best with the Thelemic view, albeit for the fact that as Thelemites we do not necessarily discount lying as a necessity at times and a simple indulgence (remember that we do not believe in sin) at others. This is also not to discount the fact that exaggeration can be beneficial in a number of instances.
MY THELEMA AND OTHER I.O.O.F. TENETSAND PRACTICES
The Official I.O.O.F. page states that the following are additional teachings Odd Fellowship provides its members:
Wise and serious truths and opens up before its members opportunities for useful service.
Belief in a Supreme Being, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe.
The lesson of fraternity, that all are of one family and therefore brethren.
The importance of the principle of Friendship, Love and Truth.
The privilege and duty of individual sympathy, mutual assistance and every-day service to ones (sic) fellows.
That humanity was intended to be one harmonious structure.
That each individual is a unit in that God-made temple.
Its members how to stand on their own feet, yet walk in step with their neighbors.
The difference between right and wrong.
That it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Personally, not all of this agrees with my interpretation of Thelema. I do not believe that right and wrong can be delineated aside from the notion of true will—whether one is to pursue one’s own or allow others to pursue theirs’, one the one hand, or restrict that freedom, on the other. I do not believe that it is always more blessed to give than to receive, at there are certainly those who don’t deserve a dime (or anything else) from me. The other tenets I either agree, disagree, or half-agree with.
In my few times in the lodge room of my local lodge, we recited the Lord’s Prayer, which I found curious given that I.O.O.F. states that it is “non-political and non-sectarian” and that people regardless of race, religion, creed, etc. can join. The Bible was also present and used during our lodge meeting, and I discovered these were regular practices throughout I.O.O.F. lodges.
Nevertheless, it is often well-understood that 10 Thelemites can give you 100 different interpretations of Thelema, as I essentially stated before, and so it would be presumptuous to say that a Thelemite could never be an Odd Fellow, or at least a member of the I.O.O.F. as it exists today.
ODD FELLOWSHIP AND MY ANARCHISM
I consider myself an anarchist. I feel the state, and therefore the government and the structures it begets, are illegitimate; that hierarchies are largely unjustified; and that capitalism is an unjustified hierarchy. My anarchism is also bolstered by my Thelema: capitalism and the state come in the way of my expression of my true will.
On the official I.O.O.F. website’s How to Join page, it states that “Any person of good character, of any race, gender, nationality and social status, who is loyal to their country and believes in a Supreme Being, is eligible for membership.”
First of all, the notion of what constitutes “good character” is fairly subjective, and secondly (and most importantly here), being loyal to one’s country is not something anarchists are exactly known for.
Now, I am loyal to the people who live in my country. In that sense I am loyal to my country: I am loyal, or rather give the benefit of the doubt, i.e. loyalty until I’m eventually stabbed in the back (if that so happens), to the people who live in my country, albeit also worldwide.
I am not loyal to the state, or the government, and I do not agree with its laws, which I find arbitrary and imposed against the liberty of free people everywhere.
Surprisingly, the issue of loyalty to my country did not come up when I joined Good Shepherd Lodge. I feel they may have missed a few questions here or there.
Additionally, an image macro on the aforementioned website states that the Odd Fellow is “faithful” to his country. This signals nothing little more than to me, as nations themselves are arbitrarily carved up geopolitical power-grabs by people far richer and more powerful than you or I will ever be. (Certainly the issue of culture comes up when considering borders, but why must the fact that one culture is endemic to one place mean that it can never exist in another?)
I discovered recently that Odd Fellows conduct an annual “pilgrimage” to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., presumably to pay their respects to a military which has largely fought to further the interests of bourgeois institutions and killed countless people in the process.
Lastly, during lodge meetings American I.O.O.F. members (myself included during the brief time I was involved) recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag, which is wholly anathema to the fact that that flag is, to me, a symbol of authoritarianism.
Despite all this, I will give I.O.O.F. a bit of a pass in that there must be some understanding of the context in which its patriotism operates: the need for declared allegiance to one’s country is essentially a safeguard that was put in place to ensure that members of the order would not use their power, prestige, or status within the I.O.O.F. to break laws or harm the government, which of course would have landed the order in serious trouble.
“It’s great that you’re thinking about this. It means you take your obligations as an Odd Fellow seriously and that the Order is meaningful to you. I think having some context for what we do in our ritual will help you to understand your relationship to Odd Fellowship better.
“The reason for requiring members to be loyal to their country comes from the 1950s. There was a lot of fear around Communism and specifically around using the secrecy of lodge meetings and activities for seditious activities. To counter that, the organization changed the “Secret Work” to the “Unwritten Work.” We also adopted the requirement that members be loyal to their country. What that means is that no member would ever use the secrecy of Odd Fellowship to do anything against the government. One of the reasons the Odd Fellows still exist in Cuba is because our lodges were apolitical and didn’t threaten the progress of the revolution.
“In the context of Odd Fellowship, being “loyal to one’s country” doesn’t mean that you’re going to necessarily support this government. It just means you’re not going to do anything under cover of lodge secrecy to attack or destabilize the government. In fact, I think that Odd Fellowship fits well with a libertarian philosophy because the idea of Odd Fellowship is that members take care of each other and the wider community at large without need for government. Odd Fellowship grew from the tradition of workers providing mutual aid during the time when governments did not provide any services to citizens.
“Ultimately you’ll have to decide what’s going to be best for you. Based on the fact that you’ve thought very hard about the meaning of what you’re doing in Odd Fellowship, I think you will be a great member. I encourage you to continue your membership and learn more and more about Odd Fellowship. Take the Three Degrees; join an Encampment and take the Encampment Degrees. Continue your journey in Odd Fellowship and work hard in your lodge.”
To clarify, in the I.O.O.F. an Encampment is a higher organization than a base lodge (but not with the greater privileges, jurisdiction, and responsibilities that a grand lodge holds) in that it confers several higher degrees than a regular lodge, which can only confer the four primary degrees.
I have no problems with the I.O.O.F. or Odd Fellowship in and of themselves. In fact, today I find much of their work admirable. On the whole, if people find Odd Fellowship and the I.O.O.F. paths to bettering themselves and the lives of those around them, that’s great. However, for a certain amount of time, maybe some several years, I found the doctrines of Odd Fellowship—namely the nationalism, moralism, and Abrahamism—kept it from working for me as an anarchist and a Thelemite.
Yet, somehow, as much cognitive dissonance as I suffered, and to some degree continue to suffer from, I came back to my local lodge recently and began working with them again. I re-joined, and actually received my official I.O.O.F. membership card. In fact, I’m looking to take the other three lodge degrees.
How do I justify this, after everything I explained about myself, above?
Well, for one, despite what I believe, I really do want to just sweep the extraneous ideals peddled by the I.O.O.F. aside and get to work helping people: I want to have an outlet to do good for others, and the I.O.O.F. seems like the perfect place for that kind of work.
Secondly, I admittedly, and unashamedly, cherry-pick: just as I do not assent to every single “doctrine” of Thelema—not everything Crowley said or wrote is written in stone, and much of what he said I simply disagree with or find unbelievable—I also understand that surely I do not need to assent to every single doctrine promulgated by the I.O.O.F. in its published material or on its websites in order to do good work for others and express the ideals of friendship, love, and truth. I do not need to believe that God is actually watching me in order to be loving, and I do not need to be loyal to the state to be a friend to others.
Perhaps this makes me a renegade Odd Fellow. Yes, I go through the motions in the lodge: I say the pledge, I declare my beliefs, but in my heart I know what it is I assent to and I know that the real prize of Odd Fellowship has, so far, been the work of making the world a better place despite the tid bit doctrines of the order which I do not wholeheartedly agree with.
And as for the ritual: all in all, I found my initiatory experience meaningful and beautiful in its own way, and a great reminder of the ever salient facts of death, impermanence, and focusing on what is valuable in our fleeting lives. Those reminders impressed upon my mind greater facts than the need to prop up the state, or convince myself that somehow God has an Abrahamic flavor. Those reminders convince me to do good for others simply because it pleases me to do so, to embody friendship, truth, and love while not being a pedant on what I feel to be the divisive and sectarian topics of God and country.
The following is a re-publishing of my article “Learning the Joy of Existence in Thelema,” originally titled “Learning the Joy of Existence,” (renamed by the admin of Thelemic Union), as originally published by Thelemic Union:
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
“Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains.”
Liber AL vel Legis
I’ve done enough suffering in my life. I often think I just can’t do this anymore, that after nearly three decades of bullshit I just want to lay down and never get up again. Yet I know I still have a long way to go: I’m only 28, so this is by no means close to being over, I’m afraid.
I mean, we all do suffer in one way or another. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but if we had to make a bet I think it would be safe to assume we’ve both had our fair share of crap to wade through. That’s simply the nature of being human. But sometimes it’s difficult to look your abysmal luck square in the face and say, “Sure, I’ll keep putting up with this.”
Granted, I guess I should count my lucky stars. I’m in a much better place emotionally than where I was, say, eight months ago. I was just a mess back then. I won’t lie: my track record for mental stability isn’t the best, and too many nights booze and pills had comforted me and rocked me to sleep. These days I can actually lay off those vices a little more, and I don’t feel too too bad on a daily basis.
Yet the joy of life continues to escape me nonetheless. Sure, I’m calm and cozy enough in my own skin, but things just feel drab and dull. The real pleasantries of existence feel somehow out of reach.
“Is this just the latent effect of the way my mind works?” I ask myself. “Or, even if I truly conquer my problems, will I always be this way?”
I just feel stuck.
As a fledgling Thelemite I look to Thelemic texts and Crowley’s works to offer me some kind of insight into the joy of life, and I find great wisdom, albeit a kind I find difficult to actually implement into my life. (These ideas are so abstract and metaphysical: how to go about making them concrete and experiential?)
In Magick Without Tears (published 1954), Crowley describes three schools of magick: the black, yellow, and white. The black school sees the conditions of life as best fled from, and includes such traditions as Buddhism (with its notion of Samsara) and Christianity (with its doctrine of sin). The yellow school sees the conditions of life as generally neutral, and includes Taoism. The white school sees the conditions of life as inherently joyful and positive, and includes Thelema.
But can one experience this seemingly transcendent and spiritual joy and positivity on a consistent, or even continual, basis?
Crowley speaks of different trances—different states of mind that we are capable of tapping into, given the right conditions. He explains these various trances in detail in his work Little Essays Toward Truth. (1938.) One such trance is the Trance of Love.
In that work Crowley explains love thusly:
“Its essence is this: any two things unite, with a double effect; firstly, the destruction of both, accompanied by the ecstasy due to the relief of the strain of separateness; secondly, the creation of a third thing, accompanied by the ecstasy of the realisation of existence, which is Joy until with development it becomes aware of its imperfection, and loves.”
Elsewhere he explains that the universe itself, being a series of such encounters—think of hydrogen nuclei in stars fusing into helium, or matter and antimatter meeting and annihilating into energy, or a mother and father reproducing to form a child, but losing sperm and an egg as a result—is itself filled with love, and thus the joy that springs from it.
Hence we read in The Book of the Law, “Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains.” (AL 2:9.)
Of course, it feels difficult, and oftentimes outright impossible, to actually experience things in such a way. I do not simply wake up in the morning and feel my heart jump with joy. I do not see a dog turd on the sidewalk and, strange though it may be to most, feel a deep, transcendental love for it. (Though, I wonder, does the true mystic, or magus?) And I certainly don’t experience joy in my suffering: I can’t imagine that I could be getting my hand sawed off and think to myself, well, this is just joyful! (Though does the adept, or the master of the temple—at least in their own way, or at least in part?)
In his commentary on Liber AL, Crowley explains the previously quoted passage in an interesting way:
“The Universe is a Puppet-Play for the amusement of Nuit and Hadit in their Nuptials; a very Midsummer Night’s Dream. So then we laugh at the mock woes of Pyramus and Thisbe, the clumsy gambols of Bottom; for we understand the Truth of Things, how all is a Dance of Ecstasy. “Were the world understood, Ye would know it was good, a Dance to a lyrical measure!” The nature of events must be “pure joy;” for obviously, whatever occurs is the fulfilment of the Will of its master. Sorrow thus appears as the result of any unsuccessful – therefore, ill-judged –struggle. Acquiescence in the order of Nature is the ultimate Wisdom.”
Nuit, of course, is infinite space (though one may easily argue She also represents other things, as well); and Hadit may, in one sense, be described as the true, inner, or atomic “self,” the infinitesimal locus at the center of a being or inanimate thing’s personal universe (though one may argue He also represents other things, as well): their “play” or interaction must be a form of love, if we go by Crowley’s definition of love as a form of coming into and achieving union. The self or or essence of a thing, representing a point in space, or rather a “point-event,” comes into contact with the infinity surrounding it, and produces a third phenomenon. Love begetting joy, according to Crowley, and the universe subsisting on countless interactions we may describe as love, existence is thus pure joy.
Additionally, if we observe the phrase “whatever occurs is the fulfilment of the Will of its master,” and we apply this concept to the totality of existence, we find that there can be no event that is not a part of the will of the universe. All is as it is, and all must be as it must be, and all becomes as it should (note this is not an ethically prescriptive “should”) based on what has gone before it—that is, based on cause and effect, or what one may describe as karma.
And indeed, “Acquiescence in the order of nature”—in so many words acceptance of things as they are.
Before I developed an interest in Thelema I was very much interested in Zen Buddhism. (I still am, though I’ll admit that these days I’m mostly focused on Qabalah and Western esotericism.) And now I am reminded, thinking of such acceptance, of a Zen proverb:
“If you understand, things are just as they are. If you do not understand, things are just as they are.” That’s how it goes.
Yes: whether you understand or not, why not accept things just as they are? Do not struggle to “get” it, just be here.
Speaking of Zen, one of the most interesting books I read on the topic was The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery (published 1973), a memoir by Dutch writer and traveler Janwillem van de Wettering. The book recounts the author’s stay in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery, and some of his experiences engaging in long periods of meditation.
Anyway, to get back to the topic of dog turds, the passage I recall best from the book was one about a feces. In the book, van de Wettering explains that after long periods of silent meditation his perception of moment-to-moment life begins to change, and he starts to know joy through normal experience.
“It is irritating, annoying, to be shut up all the time, to be unable to talk, not to be able to say: “Here I am, I have experienced something, I have thought of something, I believe I know something, I understand something, please listen to me.” What irritated me most, I think, was that nobody wanted to listen to me when I discovered that meditation, even the blundering sort of meditation I was engaged in, led to new experiences with colour and shape. I noticed that when I walked through the temple garden, the observation of bits of moss on rocks, or a slowly moving goldfish, or reeds swaying with the wind, led to ecstasy.
By losing myself in the colours and shapes around me I seemed to become very detached, an experience which I had known before, in Africa, after using hashish. The feeling wasn’t only caused by observing, being aware of, “beautiful” things, such as goldfish or pieces of moss; a full dustbin or dogshit with flies around it led to exactly the same result.”
This makes me wonder if my malaise, my lack of joy, is the result of too little meditation—or perhaps too little magick. (I’d argue much of magick is a kind of meditation, though after another manner.) After all, if it worked for van de Wettering, why shouldn’t it work for me? “Practice makes perfect,” as they say. And philosophical conjecture can only do so much. Perhaps the best way forward is to simply try, to practice.
Indeed, it’s unlikely that one could simply think one’s way into what Crowley described as the Trance of Love—though I will say that there are claims that Qabalists who contemplate their art long enough may either go mad or reach a mystical trance, especially (supposedly) by ruminating over gematria. (I’ve only heard this once or twice before, so please don’t take it as gospel.)
Laughter, too, is often a product of joy, and Crowley describes a Trance of Laughter in Little Essays Toward Truth.
Crowley places a good deal of emphasis on this particular trance, one which he calls the Vision of the Universal Joke, stating that it is central to the career of the adept.
He first compares the adept, and perhaps by extension the average person, to a victim of war or execution, and then, interestingly enough, a child playing:
“In this Trance he accepts fully the Formula of Osiris, and in the act transcends it; the spear of the Centurion passes harmlessly through his heart, and the sword of the Executioner strikes idly on his neck. He discovers that the Tragedy of which so many centuries have made such a case is but a farce for children’s pleasure. Punch is knocked down only to get up grinning with his gay “Root-too-too-tit! Here we are again!” Judy, the Beadle, the Hangman and the Devil are merely the companions of his playtime.”
The Formula of Osiris, in Crowley’s thought, corresponds to the aeon of the same name, and conceives of humanity as subject to death, perceiving the universe as being ruled over by a dying god, and dependent on the idea of resurrection as a form of maintenance for the continuation of life. However, in the Vision of the Universal Joke the adept transcends this notion of being subject to the cycle of birth-life-death-resurrection and perceives himself eternal.
Pertinently, Crowley wrote in the The Vision and the Voice (published 1911), “The Thelemite does not ‘suffer death.’ He is eternal and perceives Himself the Universe by virtue of the categories of Life and Death, which are not real but subjective forms of his artistic presentation.”
The universe as pure being, the Yod of Tetragrammaton, is, of course, eternal, and can never die. We as individuals being expressions of that—Alan Watts would describe us as being waves that flow out of and retreat back into the ocean of the cosmos—we can never truly die, for in essence we are one and eternal.
And what can one do, perceiving this, but laugh?
Furthermore, to perceive all sorrow and suffering as the mere blunders of a romp in one’s playpen, to distance oneself from suffering in such a way that it appears to be a necessary component of joy, makes for a grand joke, one whose punchline spans the whole universe.
“So, since (after all) the facts which he thought tragic are real enough, the essence of his solution is that they are not true, as he thought, of himself; they are just one set of phenomena, as interesting and as fatuously impotent to affect him as any other set. His personal grief was due to his passionate insistence on contemplating one insignificant congeries of Events as if it were the sole reality and importance in the infinite mass of Manifestation.”
This reminds me of Buddhism, in a certain way: to distance suffering from the notion of self, to regard oneself as not harmed by suffering, is in essence to regard the self as either aloof to the extent that it is beyond conditioned reality, and therefore unconditioned, or non-existent, and therefore one with the Absolute itself. Compare the concept of adi-Buddha, important in the Vajrayana tradition especially.
It furthermore reminds me of Stoicism, an ancient Greco-Roman philosophical tradition which teaches indifference to suffering and the pursuit of virtue.
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been,” wrote Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius in his diary, what would become a famous work known as the Meditations.
His Meditations also provides this wisdom:
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not “This is misfortune,” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.””
Indeed, much of suffering—at least emotional suffering—has to do with perspective and the way we think. That’s why, as I have experienced, many psychologists and therapists practice cognitive behavioral therapy as a form of intervention. This is a practice which attempts to alter one’s cognitive biases and distortions in order to mould the patterns taken on by thought processes so that they become healthy and stable.
Anyway, Crowley continues:
“It is thus that the Perception of the Universal Joke leads directly to the Understanding of the Idea of Self as conterminous with the Universe, and at the same time one with it, creator of it, and aloof from it; which Triune State is, as is well known, one of the most necessary stages of Samadhi.”
Observe this trinity of self: self as unified with the universe, self as creator of the universe, and self as transcending the universe.
First of all, if one’s self is the universe, and the universe itself contains both all suffering and all joy (as it contains all conscious beings capable of experiencing such states), how can it truly suffer? (It is, after all, an unintelligent universe, as far as we can tell, and one in some state of equilibrium.)
Secondly, if self creates the universe, it is necessarily the maintainer of it, and has power over it. How can that which has power over a thing allow that thing to harm it?
Lastly, if self transcends the universe, it is beyond the conditions which cause suffering in the first place.
This all makes me think of aloofness or indifference, that the aspirant needs to grasp a kind of uncaring attitude in order to move beyond the throes of pain and suffering so entrenched in our world. And, indeed, Crowley writes of a Trance of Indifference:
“The state of mind which is characterised by Indifference is commonly called Trance, but the misnomer is unfortunate. It is, in fact, in a sense the precise contrary of a Trance; for Trance usually implies Samadhi, and this state specifically excludes any such occurrence. That implies a uniting, and thus a willed dissociation…
The general idea of the state is that the mind should react automatically to each and every impression: “It does not matter whether the Event be ay or nay.” Blavatsky observes that the feeling is at least tinged with disgust. But this is an error; such a state is imperfect. There should, on the contrary, be a quite definite joy, not in the impression itself but in being indifferent to it. This joy springs doubtless from the sense of power involved; but that is again an imperfection; one should rather rejoice in the cognizance of the ultimate truth that “existence is pure joy,” not in any feeling more immediate.”
The Vision of the Universal Joke is samadhic in nature, according to Crowley, and he states in Little Essays that the Trance of Indifference is inferior to a state of samadhi, taking less technical skill to achieve. However, he notes it is not without merit, as, as we read, it leads to joy. Yet the trances, while they free us from suffering to some extent or another, are definitely different in character.
The Vision of the Universal Joke, for one, relies on the aspirant identifying the self with a transcendent state unified with and yet beyond the universe, and at the same time the generator of the universe, essentially making self a panentheistic God.
This differs from the Trance of Indifference, which relies on analyzing phenomena in a way that they are not given value. That is to say, value judgments are stopped altogether.
A good practice for achieving this end may be Crowley’s Class D Liber Jugorum, described as “An instruction for the control of speech, action, and thought.”
Perhaps more difficult, but still useful, may be Liber Turris vel Domus Dei, described as “An instruction for attainment by the direct destruction of thoughts as they arise in the mind.”
Also consider the Trance of Beatitude, or the Beatific Vision, a state in which beauty is perceived in all things. There are two forms of this vision, according to Crowley: one form, the lower, pertains to Tiphereth, and the other, higher vision pertains to Kether, and the grade of Ipsissimus. However, Crowley states that the higher form of this vision has “never been described in detail,” and he instead focuses on the lower form.
“Let us then occupy ourselves with the lower form of this Vision (so called; it is not technically a Vision at all) which pertains to Tiphareth, and is thus the natural grace of the Minor Adept. It may be said at once that those who have attained to higher grades, especially those above the Abyss, can hardly return to this Vision. For it implies a certain innocence, a certain defect of Understanding which is not possible to a Master of the Temple. Again, the Grades of Exempt and Major Adept are too energetic to admit of the balanced quietude of this state.
Only in the centre of the Tree of Life, only in the self-poised security of the Solar Axis, can we expect to find the steady indifference to Event which is the basis of the Trance, and that Ontogenous radiance which tinges it with Rose and Gold.”
Indeed, we know that Tiphereth is the heart of the Tree of Life, its center corresponding to the Sun in its effulgence. And Tiphereth, of course, means “beauty.” Yet Tiphereth is not the crown of the Tree, and so it cannot represent full attainment and understanding, as exalted of a state as it provides.
“In fact, it may be surmised that the Vision arises not from any given action but rather from a subtle suspension of action,” Crowley goes on. “The conflict of events has ended happily in a state of serenely perfect balance, in which, though energy continues to manifest, its issues have become without significance. We may compare the condition with the return of health of a fever-stricken man. The alternation of pyrexia and subnormal temperatures has subsided; he forgets gradually to consult the thermometer at the accustomed intervals, become absorbed instinctively in his regular pursuits. At the same time he is not longer aware of the hot and cold spells, but half consciously of the quiet glow of health. Similarly in this vision all conscious magical effort ceases, although the practices are continued with all customary diligence, and the whole of the Adepts’s impressions, internal as external, are suffused with the glow of beauty and delight. The state is in many respects closely akin to that sought by the smoker of opium; but it is natural and requires no artificial regulation.”
Tiphereth being located in the middle pillar of the Tree of Life, it is balanced in a way that the sephiroth on the pillars of mercy and severity are not. It is also at the center of the tree, and from it branches a number of paths connecting a number of sephiroth. It thus maintains a state of equilibrium and openness that the other sephiroth don’t. It seems that staying in this consciousness of equilibrium, the aspirant or adept eases into a state of routine joy, perceiving beauty in all things, working their way through life and routine with the least of conscious effort.
I think, reading this, of the Taoist concept of wu wei, or effortless action, action which flows without resistance—action that exists in harmony with the way of things and nature itself. (That is, in harmony with the Tao.) This analysis makes sense, as the Tao, according to the tables of Liber 777, flows from Kether, which connects along the path of Gimel directly to Tiphereth.
Lastly, let’s take a look at what Crowley writes of what he calls the Trance of Wonder:
“A little more than kin, and less than kind” are the Trance of Sorrow, and the Vision of the Machinery of the Universe; this latter being the technical aspect of the Apprehension of the Law of Change, which is also a Trance of the same order as that of Sorrow. Now one mode of victory over all these is the Trance of Indifference, in which one stands aloof from the whole matter; but it is only one mode, and (in the generally known form) full of falsehood and imperfection. For to stand aloof is to affirm duality, which is itself the root of Sorrow. To obtain the highest one must unite oneself with all things, partake of all as a true Sacrament. And this motion leads to the Trance of Wonder.”
Indeed, to be indifferent to something is still to say, in effect, “I am separate from this thing,” and as we know, duality is the basis of suffering—for if there is self and other, there is a self to suffer because of that other. Yet if self becomes one with other, there is no self to suffer and no other to cause suffering.
“The Trance of Wonder arises naturally—it is the first movement of the mind—from the final phrase of the Oath of a Master of the Temple, “I will interpret every phenomenon as a particular dealing of God with my soul,”” wrote Crowley. “For, immediately the Understanding illuminates the darkness of knowledge, every fact appears in its true guise miraculous.
It is so: then, how marvellous that it should so be!”
I have sometimes, in the past especially, had moments when I found myself marvelling at the complex intricacies of everything, the very fact that all things are so interdependent and that the universe is so vast and that yet, at the same time, everything breaks down into something so infinitesimal. In those moments the whole of the cosmos appeared to be incredible. I wonder now, reading Crowley’s description of this trance, whether I was marvelling at the world or really, ultimately amazed at myself.
Because, after all, what’s the difference?
And, if everything is awe-inspiring, and oneself is no different than this awe and the world that begets it, what other response can spring forth but an eagerness to partake in the very sacrament of existence, to adventure into the endless and incredible universe, the jeweled palace of space and time?
Trances and meditations, contemplations and methods of achieving joy—mystics and hierophants both alive and long gone have told us of these things. But as much as we may doubt them or their efforts, there’s no real way to know whether they’re right or wrong without trying our hand at their ways. I will be the first to admit that I’m easily distracted, disorganized, sporadic, and lazy: it’s difficult for me to form a routine. But every day I wake up and remind myself of the need to accomplish the Great Work, and with that intent in my heart I go through life with the aspiration toward joy and strength. As much as I’ve suffered in my life, as much as day to day toils have thrashed me and allowed me to trash myself, I know there is a way out and through the all-too-real abyss of emotional turmoil and into a higher life characterized by beauty and wonder and love and joy and solemn indifference to the impermanent woes of that too often befall us.
Ideally, the Thelemite is to be filled with joy, alive and “Thrill with the joy of life and death!” (Liber AL 2:66.) In this essay we’ve read about some of the states which lead to such thrill and joy—though, of course, what’s left is the long, hard road to mould ourselves into beings capable of perceiving this joy in ourselves and in the world, despite the suffering which in reality plagues our universe.
We may wander the gray land of the Qliphoth, caught up in our own pain and confusion. However, as much dross as we contain, we may do away with it and see a diamond mind shine through. As much lead as we are we may transmute ourselves into pure gold.
Now none of this is a call for Thelemites to be indifferent to the pain of others: we ought to work to free others from the tyranny which thwarts their wills to life and joy and beauty. However, we can work compassion in this world while not allowing the sting of life to be quite so potent that it strikes us down. We can stand tall and stalwart against the battering waves of life, and learn joy despite the agony which surrounds us.
Perhaps I’m a fool, and you may call me one if you like. Yet I really believe one can learn true happiness, real ecstasy, even in Hell. The power and ingenuity of the human spirit promises it. The true will must lead to it. Darkness surrounds us but, with the right sort of eyes, one can see that the universe is pure light, and that the effulgence of the Unknown Crown shines through all shadow and doubt and pain, eternally and everywhere.
The following is a re-publishing of my article published in Thelemic Union, “There’s Nothing Special About Meditation,” (2020) comparing the wisdom of Eihei Dogen and Aleister Crowley on the discipline of meditation:
Eihei Dōgen (also known as Dōgen Kigen, 1200 – 1253), the founder of the Buddhist school of Sōtō Zen in Japan, and one of the most important and influential Zen masters, preached the omnipresence of Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha)—that Buddha-nature, one’s true and enlightened nature, is present and available to everyone, everywhere, and at all times. To Dōgen, zazen, meditation, is not an attempt at enlightenment so much as enlightenment in and of itself. For him, the simplicity of just sitting, maintaining mere presence, is enough to tap into one’s innermost perfection.
As Dōgen said, “To model yourself after the way of the Buddhas is to model yourself after yourself.” This is a stance of radical self-authentication, a view of enlightenment which, though quintessentially natural and undeniably simplistic, is ultimately beyond description, being rooted in the purity of practice, and not in conjecture or philosophical rhetoric. Hence the Buddha’s noble silence, Bodhidharma’s insistence that the true and profound dharma is “a special transmission outside the scriptures, not depending on words and letters,” and—as we read in so many koans—the wordless responses Zen masters to inquiring pupils.
One Zen parable that illustrates the omnipresence and immediacy of Buddha-nature is a mondō, or dialogue between a disciple and teacher, involving the Zen master Hotetsu.
In this dialogue, a monk approaches Hotetsu, who is fanning himself, and asks the following:
“The wind-nature is constant. There is no place it does not circulate. Why do you still use a fan?”
“You only know that the wind-nature is constant. You do not know yet the meaning of it circulating everywhere.”
In his commentary on the parable of Hotetsu, Dōgen states, “To say that since (the nature of wind) is permanent one should not use a fan, and that one should feel the breeze even when not using a fan, is not knowing permanence and not knowing the nature of the wind either.”
This is itself a somewhat cryptic response to an already cryptic parable, but it remains telling: I think that what Dōgen wants us to understand, essentially, is that Buddha-nature is inherently available all the time, but that just because it is “there” and that we “have” it, doesn’t mean that we comprehend, fully appreciate, and integrate it into our lives.
Zazen is thus like the fan, a utilization of latent potential. By simply sitting in meditation, we better comprehend and, indeed, integrate Buddha-nature. Through practice we move from philosophical speculation to spiritual affirmation. In a single moment of sitting Buddha-hood is actualized.
Meditation for Spiritual Perfection
Teachers from other traditions have in, in so many other terms, echoed similar notions, with the primary idea more or less being that one is already spiritually “perfect,” but has yet to really “remember” or “actualize” that perfection.
Hints of this concept can potentially be inferred from the writings of esotericist Aleister Crowley: Crowley railed against the idea of restorative reincarnation in his commentary on Liber AL vel Legis, saying:
“The idea of incarnations ‘perfecting’ a thing originally perfect by definition is imbecile.”
This conception of existence, Nietzschean as it seems, assumes that each individual human life, in its own uniqueness, is already “perfect” and in need (though not necessarily want or will) of nothing beyond itself.
Crowley developed Thelema, a spiritual and philosophical system which, like Buddhism, often sees its practitioners engage in meditation. And like the pupil of Dōgen, the pupil of Crowley may, if one should in this regard follow his philosophy to the tee, see meditation, and spiritual practice in general, not as a reshaping of something presently unsuitable for a certain purpose (in this case enlightenment), but as a reminder to wake up—a cue to approach life with excellence and live out the perfection already and always resident within all human beings.