A False Fork in Hermeticism: Different Approaches, Same End

Although I have my reservations about doing so, I don’t think that it’s all that weird to consider Hermeticism a kind of gnosticism in one sense or another.  I mean, literally speaking, one of the major pushes in the study and practice of Hermeticism is for gnōsis, the Greek word for “knowledge” meant technically in a Hermetic sense as a revelatory, non-discursive experience of divine truth—in other words, something that is capital-T True but which you can’t reason your way into thinking it and which you can’t be taught it or pick it up from anything or anyone else except God.  In that light, since Hermeticism encourages us towards achieving such experiences of gnōsis as a vehicle for spiritual development and perfection (not just a one-time deal, but something we strive for both repeatedly and continuously), one could very much call Hermeticists “gnostics”.  Doing so, however, neglects the actual use of the term gnosticism to refer to a wide-ranging series of religious movements that arose in the early Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levantine region, including such traditions and schools as Sethianism, Valentinianism, the Basilideans, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, and others (even modern gnostic churches like the Apostolic Johannite Church).

Still, it’s not for nothing that Hermeticism might be considered a kind of “historical gnosticism” with these other groups, given how we find Hermetic texts in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VII,6—8, including the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth which radically shifted our modern understanding of Hermeticism) and how there’s so much shared terminology (and even shared doctrines at times) between the Hermetic texts and various gnostic texts.  Moreover, even though the ultimate origins of gnosticism are obscure at best, we know that many such gnostic traditions arose in Jewish or early Christian communities centered in and around northeastern Egypt and Roman Palestine, neighbors with the historical origin of Hermeticism in location, time, and culture.  Even if Hermeticism may not be considered a child of the overall parent of “gnosticism”, we can consider Hermeticism and gnosticism to be like siblings—but even if they grew up in the same “household” at about the same time, they certainly went their separate ways once they moved out from their parent’s place.

Of course, it’s incorrect to think of “gnosticism” as being just one thing.  As I mentioned above, there are a whole bunch of various schools, traditions, and sects that were all “gnostic” to one degree or another, but they’re a really varied bunch that don’t have a lot of common with each other beyond being somehow tied to the idea that gnōsis (true spiritual or mystical knowledge) is tied to to salvation or ascension in some way.  It’s perhaps better to talk of “gnosticisms” or “gnostic spiritualities” rather than “kinds of gnosticism”.  Still, there are a few commonalities, and perhaps the most well-known one is a kind of matter-spirit dualism, a logical (though extreme) extension of Plato’s allegory of the cave such that there is the physical cosmos that we’re born into presided over by a Demiurge (δημιουργός dēmiourgós “craftsman”) along with some number of archons (ἀρχός arkhós “leader”) who control this world, and a truly divine world which “really exists” beyond this one.  This doesn’t sound all that weird on the spectrum of religious beliefs, but it’s that all this that we experience as our worldly lives is a sham and a con, separated as we are from being “really real”, but we’re cruelly trapped in this fake world of matter by wicked and blind demiurge and archons.  (If you’ve ever seen the 1999 film The Matrix, then you’ve got the right idea.)  As a result, “gnostic beliefs” (as varied as they are) are often stereotyped as being extremely pessimistic and dour about the world around us, seeing it only as a prison and cage that it’s on our duty to escape while the evil powers of this world (who are in a divine cosmic war with the forces of actual goodness) callously treat us as little more than amusing playthings.

Which takes me back to Hermeticism and how “gnostic” it may be in substance.  Sure, there are Hermetic texts that seem in line with this sort of pessimistic dualism that basically spits on the world. Consider CH VII, a fire-and-brimstone harangue against people in their drunken stupor of “loathsome pleasure”, how the body is an “odious tunic” that “strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its visciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within”.  Time and again throughout the Hermetic texts, we see similar pessimistic opinions that the cosmos is evil, that we’re trapped here, and so on, but perhaps most notably in CH VI.2—6:

…Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; (thus,) it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore…only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. …

… All the things that are subject to the sight of the eyes are as phantoms and shadowy illusions, but those not subject to it, especially the (essence) of the beautiful and the good. … As the eye cannot see god, neither can it see the beautiful and the good, for they are integral parts of god alone, properties of god, peculiar to him, inseparable, most beloved; either god loves them or they love god.

… Hence, those who remain in ignorance and do not travel the road of reverence dare to say that mankind is beautiful and good, but a human cannot see nor even dream of what the good might be. Mankind has been overrun by every evil, and he believes that evil is good; therefore, he uses evil the more insatiably and fears being deprived of it, striving with all his might not only to possess it but even to increase it. …

But, well…there are two things that complicate this.  For one (as I’ve written about before), the Hermetic texts use somewhat different notions of “good” and “evil” than we might be accustomed to conventionally, and these terms get used in different ways in different texts (viz. a philosophical way and a moral way).  For two (and this is the more important point I want to make), for as many pessimistic and dualistic texts there are in the Hermetic corpora, there are at least as many optimistic and monist texts that outright praise and revel in the cosmos, in creation, and the like.  Although CH VI and CH VII are super pessimistic, they’re preceded by CH V, is a shockingly upbeat optimistic one that rejoices in how divinity is present right here with us and is directly responsible for all things (and which I once turned into a sort of quasi hymn, the Praise of the Invisible and Visible God).  Likewise, other texts like CH XIV explicitly say that creation cannot be separate in any way from the creator and that there’s nothing shameful or evil about creation.  There’s this weird and strange mix of monism and dualism replete throughout the Hermetic texts as a whole, and it can seem really bewildering to the point of getting whiplash when going from one text to the next.  While there are certainly “gnostic” and dualistic perspectives, Hermeticism as a whole lends itself more to a monist sort of understanding of theology and cosmology, and even dour-dualist texts like CH VI or CH VII have weird monist bits in them, too.

As Christian Bull points out in The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (THT) and Wouter Hanegraaff in Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), classifying certain Hermetic texts as pessimistic/dualist (as in CH VI) or optimistic/monist (as in CH V) has been a thing for over a hundred years now. Such a classification has formed much of the basis for the academic study and discussion of Hermeticism in that time, including postulating how particular Hermetic lodges might have come to form around particular core doctrines, some upholding an “optimistic” view of divine monism and others a “pessimistic” view of matter-spirit dualism.  Indeed, it’s because some of these Hermetic texts that had such pessimistic-dualist perspectives that many scholars have considered Hermeticism a kind of (stereotypical) gnosticism, doing much research into the similarities, parallels, and influences between Hermetic texts and non-Hermetic gnostic ones.  Moreover, following the work of A.-J. Festugière, it was more-or-less cemented as a notion that we had “Greek/Hellenistic” texts that were the monist ones, while the dualistic ones were variously “orientalist” or even just “Egyptian”.  It wasn’t until the later work of J.P. Mahé and (especially) Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes (ET), building on the recovery of texts like the Nag Hammadi Codices or the the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpsios together with better research on texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, that a new perspective on the whole shebang was made.  Rather than seeing the extant Hermetic corpora as being a mish-mash of texts from different groups from different cultural backgrounds that were at doctrinal odds with each other, scholars like Mahé or Fowden developed a notion of a “way of Hermēs” that understood and went through each of the texts (or similar texts close enough to what survives) as part of a complete system, moving from one perspective to another in a process of spiritual advancement.

From Bull’s THT:

… Mahé came to consider the monistic treatises as the earliest stage of the way of immortality, where the disciple would initially be taught that the material world was good, so as to ease him or her into a more spiritual life. As the disciples progressed they would become stronger and have less and less use for the material world, and at that stage of spiritual maturity they would be instructed to despise the body and the material world, focusing exclusively on the spiritual existence. … Fowden tried to surpass the essentializing dichotomy between what is “authentically Egyptian” and “authentically Greek,” and instead described “modes of cultural interaction” in Greco-Roman Egypt. It was in such a mixed milieu, he proposed, that the followers of the way of Hermes progressed from monistic epistēmē to dualistic gnōsis, in groups resembling the Gnostics: “small, informal circles of the literate but not (usually) learned gathered round a holy teacher and given up to study, asceticism and pious fellowship.” Egyptian priests may have been involved with such groups, though Fowden remained tentative on this point…

If we turn to ET, here’s how Fowden characterizes such a “way” in his monism-to-dualism progression:

…the way of Hermes, as Hermes himself points out at the end of the Asclepius, was not for the mind alone; nor did the attainment of epistēmē or even gnōsis provide any automatic access to salvation. ‘The pious fight consists in knowing the divine and doing ill to no man’: the ethical virtues also had their part to play. The intending initiate must lead a life of piety, obedience and purity—that is, abstinence from the pleasures of this world. The Hermetists do not seem to have been austere ascetics, though the demands they made on themselves undoubtedly increased as they advanced towards spiritual perfection. Generally they held that, just as God formed Man and his environment, so Man in turn is obliged to perpetuate his own race…while the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God’s own creative act. But the tone changes in the more spiritual treatises, where the body may be described as a prison, and sex rejected as a curse. The virtues are here taken much more for granted, and at this stage it can even be pointed out, as in the key-passage quoted earlier from The Ogdoad reveals the Ennead, that pure morals and a clear conscience are not in themselves a sufficient preparation for gnōsis. The relative neglect of the ethical virtues in the more spiritual treatises derives from their authors’ assumption that their audience will already have made the crucial choice on which all else depends—the choice, that is, between the ‘material’ to and the ‘essential’ Man, the corporeal and the incorporeal, the mortal and the divine realms. For one cannot love both simultaneously.

While Bull affirms some of Fowden’s points in THT, he takes issue with Mahé’s and Fowden’s notion that such a “Hermetic way” was “progression from monism to dualism…[but] that the progress goes in the opposite direction: at the early stage the disciple is asked to alienate himself from his body and from the physical world, in order to free his soul from the bodily passions[; o]nly then will he be able to undergo the initiatory rite of rebirth, after which he is once again reintegrated with the world and goes on to praise the creator god.”  More fully, he explains:

…we have argued that the first stages of the Way of Hermes was characterized by a pedagogical dualism, in which the candidate was taught first to despise the material body as an obstacle to the essential inner human, and then to consider the material cosmos as devoid of truth. A number of Hermetica can with some certainty be related to these stages (CH I, II, IV, VI, X; SH II A–B, VI, XI). When the acolyte had become a stranger to the world, he (or she) could undergo the ritual of rebirth (CH XIII). In the course of this initiatory ritual the dark avengers of matter, representing astral fatality, were conclusively exorcized. In their place, ten divine powers were invoked to descend into the candidate, who now became “the one human, a god and son of God,” namely the androgynous primordial human of the Poimandres. The initiate had thus become ontologically equal to the demiurgic mind residing in the Ogdoad, the brother of the primordial human, who surrounds and suffuses the cosmos. He was now fully integrated with the cosmos: the dualism of the earlier stages has been resolved into a monism, a union with the All, celebrated in the hymn of the rebirth. Now deified, the initiate could proceed to go through a rite of visionary ascent (Disc.8–9), on the principle that “like can only be understood by like” (CH XI, 20). In this rite, the spiritual master, in the role of Hermes, guided the initiate…The reborn was thus brought into the Ogdoad, where he saw indescribable glories and heard silent hymnodies sung by the powers that reside there. This is the culmination of the Way of Hermes, and the visionary was now fully initiated and could join his spiritual brothers in silent hymn-singing, which united them with the powers in the Ogdoad until the day when they would leave the body for good. …

Later, Bull summarizes this as saying:

I would however argue that the reason for this contempt of the body is not so much the result of dualistic anti-cosmism, but rather what we may call pedagogical dualism. The disciple is supposed to gain knowledge of himself, and the Hermetica are in unison agreement that the authentic human being is not identical with the body but with the immaterial noetic essence of the soul. At the earliest stage of teaching the disciple therefore has to be trained to stop identifying himself with the body, and this is why the body is condemned. At a later stage, however, the body will be seen in a more nuanced light, as a necessary tool to fulfill one’s duties as a human in the cosmos.

Okay, so, these are a lot of words and a lot of really lengthy excerpts that have probably rendered most of my readers’ eyes dry, drowsy, and distressed.  The reason why I wanted to bring all this up is because, time and again in the Hermeticism channel in the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I and a few other people keep referencing the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach” to Hermetic practice.  This really is all about the practice of Hermeticism at this point: given that so many of us are already familiar with the doctrines and opinions in the various classical Hermetic texts (and all the critiques thereof), there are likewise so many of us actually doing the labor involved to put these words to work, actually living our lives according to the lessons in the texts.  This is difficult even at the best of times, given that we do technically only have an incomplete picture of what Hermeticism is from the classical period, but it’s because of good modern scholarship that we have a lot of the gaps filled in for us from otherwise good sources coupled with excellent extrapolation.

Because of the constantly-shifting landscape of academia on top of how the texts themselves can admit multiple interpretations, this leads to different ways one might actually walk the “Way of Hermēs”. One such difference plays out between what we’ve been calling the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach”.  Based on the texts referenced above, we can summarize what these mean accordingly:

  • The Fowden approach (also evinced by scholars like Mahé) can be thought of as “optimistic monism → pessimistic dualism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs by celebrating the immanence of God within creation and understanding how all things are divinely one.  Over time, as one becomes spiritually mature and ready for it, they then begin to separate themselves from the world through increasingly austere practices and perspectives which culminate in the final ascent of the soul to God to totally leave this world behind.
  • The Bull approach (also evinced by authors like Z. Pleše or G. Shaw) can be thought of as “pessimistic dualism → optimistic monism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs through detestation and dejection of the body, beginning with austere practices so as to purify the soul’s indwelling connection with the body.  It’s only once the student has properly purified themselves of any addiction or attachment to reality that they can more fully engage with it as a unified whole, leading them to see creation for what it really is and to see the Creator within it with eyes unclouded.

Both the Fowden approach and Bull approach look pretty reasonable for orienting oneself in Hermeticism, offering some notion of structure within which one can develop their practices and focus their studies.  Thinking about how to apply the various Hermetic texts together as a combined “way” (as in a curriculum of study) has led to us in HHoL thinking and talking about Hermeticism in terms of these “approaches”, and which “direction” we should pursue or why we should do so.  Personally, if I had to choose between the Fowden approach and the Bull approach as being the proper way to the Way, I’d go with the Bull approach, as I find it not only better argued, but also more meaningful in how it really does let the beautiful monistic outlook of Hermeticism shine through.

Of course, to posit that the Way of Hermēs takes either approach is itself a kind of dualistic thinking, and that itself is a problem for Hermeticism.  As Hanegraaff playfully chides in HSHI:

It seems to me that one must go even one step further and recognize that the very distinction between dualism and monism is itself a reflection of dualistic thinking. From the perspective of divinity to which practitioners aspired, such oppositions would be meaningless—little more than evidence of our limited consciousness.

While Hanegraaff makes this point of nondualism so as to introduce a “third kind” of reality that cuts across the Platonically-inspired dualism of divine Being and cosmic Becoming, I think it also helps to to consider these two approaches as just being different stages of a holistic Way of Hermēs rather than being two incompatible things.   To that end, instead of merely going “monism → dualism” or “dualism → monism”, I’d take a broader combined approach and recontextualization of these things as “noninitiated monism → initiatory dualism → initiated monism”.  Hear me out about how this plays out:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is shown teaching primarily Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn as his disciples (or at least the ones explicitly named as such).  However, in CH I, Hermēs is charged with nothing less than the salvation of the human race by becoming “guide to the worthy”.  To that end, he immediately proceeds preaching on the street to whomever might listen, and for those who “desired to be taught”, Hermēs taught them all—yet, in texts like SH 11 or CH XIII, there are also exhortations to secrecy, and in CH XVI, there’s a notion of development from earlier doctrines to later doctrines.  There’s also AH 9 that lays out that different people have different capacities for spirituality, none of which are necessarily better than another but which simply accord each one’s lot in life. Based on all this, my opinion is that all people can be taught and can follow the Way to one degree or another, but some people will (or are meant to) take on a more intensive practice than others.
  • At first, the Way of Hermēs opens up with a benign, simple monism for the noninitiated-but-still-curious.  The student begins to learn about the Creator and Creation, our place within it, and how to lead a good life.  For some people, this is all they need to worry about, a sort of “everyday spirituality for the everyman”.  For them, their union with the Divine is something that can be attained on “the way up” after one’s death; for them, all of life while lived is simply preparation for that final ascent while participating in their role in the cosmos.
  • For others, living a good life and letting that “final ascent” happen after death isn’t enough; rather, they seek to strive for making such an ascent while still alive, or to ensure that such an ascent is guaranteed beyond the shadow of a doubt.  When the noninitiated student is ready to take that “next step”, they then begin a process of  studying and practicing austerity to break them of any misleading identifications of themselves with the body and other wrong views that may have come along uninspected but unwanted in their earlier noninitiated monism.  This helps resolve any “addictions” or “attachments” to incarnation they might have which would prevent them from properly engaging in mindful embodiment.
  • Upon the fullness of their initiatory ordeals and the actual performance and completion of initiation (in whatever form it might have taken, as exemplified by texts like CH XIII or NHC VII,6), the initiate has reached a state of spiritual maturity (or, rather, in the terms of CH XIII, spiritual rebirth) that enables them to be mindfully embodied. This is the realization of a sort of radical nondualism that not just believes in the transcendent and immanent unity of Creator with Creation, but knows it and lives it.  Having completely understood themselves, they have fully joined themselves to God while being alive in the body, achieving their own ascent before the final ascent, not only guaranteeing the completion of such an ascent after they leave this life but dwelling in union even while alive.

In other words, if I were to reterm the Fowden approach and Bull approach as “stages”, the “Fowden stage” is that of a noninitiate becoming an initiate, while the “Bull stage” is that of an initiate becoming a master.  They’re not so much different approaches on the Way as they are the difference between a moderate “outer court” and intense “inner court”, and yet both courts still have monism as their focus (as is proper for a comprehensive view of Hermetic doctrines).  And that’s hardly even a separation, really; both are set on achieving gnōsis and on union with God through gnōsis (which is all the result of having nous “mind”, which can be achieved either through reverence alone or through initiatory experiences).  The difference lies in whether one achieves such a thing while in this life or after this life, and how far one wants to take one’s own spiritual and mystic practice.  In that, perhaps even the notion of these being “outer court” and “inner court” approaches is misleading; it might be better thought of as “entering the temple from the outside world” and “leaving the temple into the outside world” (not unlike how the students of Hermēs enter into the temple at the start of the AH, but then leave it at the end).

The only time dualism ever appears in this whole thing is as a transition, and it doesn’t really so much a doctrine of actual-dualism as it is a practice (or even an aesthetic) of seeming-dualism.  Such a practice is only for the sake of refining and perfecting an overall monism, because such a practice is meant to be contextualized by monism and understood within the boundaries of a monistic understanding of the cosmos.  The “dualism” here is as much a fleeting illusion as dualism is generally, but illusory as it is, it’s one that matters; yet, by that very same token, it might be misleading to call this “pedagogical dualism” (per Bull) a “stage” as such, because it’s more of a transition between stages.  One does not merely stay with this detestation of the body forever, but must eventually move past it once the lessons of doing so are fully integrated; otherwise, one becomes mislead (from a Hermetic point of view), a sort of “falling into a pessimistic abyss” where one forgets the lessons from the earlier noninitiated simple monism while being unable to reach the lessons of the latter initiated radical monism.  (Mind the gnostic gap!)

In that light, we’re never truly engaging with dualism as an end, but rather as a means to an end, starting with monism and ending with monism; heck, we probably shouldn’t even think of this as “dualism” so much as it is “responsible non-solipsistic monism”.  To say “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” doesn’t really represent distinct ways of “doing Hermeticism” so much as it demonstrates the whole lifespan of a mystic aspirant to the union of God within a Hermetic framework in general, whether done all at once in life or done partly in life and partly after life.  The complexity here of how to understand the Hermetic corpora as a whole belies a simpler foundation that Hermeticism is still all just a way to develop and live a monist mysticism.  Whether one dwells as a noninitiate in the simple monism of pistis/epistēmē or as an initiate in the radical monism of gnōsis, it’s still fundamentally the same teaching, because we all eventually end up at the same destination;  even the “transition” between the two that involves an austere rejection of the body may not even need to be all that austere depending on one’s own inclination to embodiment and divinity.

Such a “Hermetic dualism” is just the first part of the alchemical phrase solve et coagula.  It’s the part where we split ourselves apart, take ourselves apart, and inspect ourselves, all to learn what makes us tick and where our faults lie.  It’s the difficult stage where we really come to “know thyself”, and as a result of doing that, we come to put ourselves back together better than before, improved and more capable of becoming and being more of what we truly are.  It reminds me of a lot of those alchemical diagrams describing the process of generation and differentiation, all ultimately coming from The One and all ultimately leading back to The One, just like in the Golden Chain of Homer:

Despite some of the historical and textual similarities between Hermeticism and some gnostic traditions, I would argue that it’s inappropriate to apply the label “gnosticism” to Hermeticism, if only to avoid some of the stereotypes that “gnosticism” has accrued.  As Hanegraaff demonstrates in HSHI, “very far from the gloomy dualism and pessimistic otherworldliness imagined by modern scholars obsessed by narratives of fall and decline, Hermetic spirituality was grounded in a strongly world-affirming perspective that fully embraced the positive values of life, fertility, and the pursuit of happiness”, and the whole spiritual discipline of Hermeticism was meant to reverently realize that at one level or another for each person who engaged with it.  It might be more rigorous for some, sure, but it’s easy to mistake the rigor of austerity and harshness for “pessimistic dualism”; after all, to an outsider who isn’t clued into the nuances of a difficult situation, what might look like abuse  and violence may instead be in actuality tough love and a forceful but necessary intervention.  And even then, such austerity and detestation of one’s body is not meant for everyone, and for those who do go for it, it requires careful preparation, contextualization, and orientation, all of which is centered in an optimistic, life-loving monism that was never denied from the get-go.

Although I like the benefits that saying “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” provides in discussion, I admit that it’s as much sleight-of-hand as it is shorthand.  The only approach that matters on the Way is the one that leads to its ultimate End, and while different people might take slightly different paths or be at different stages along their paths, it’s all still one Way.

All Siblings, Orphans We

As I’ve encouraged others to do so before, I have a little ancestor shrine of my own.  Because of my training and experience as a spiritist (specifically in the Afro-Cuban and heavily Congo-flavored brand of espiritismo rather than the “scientific spiritism” of Alan Kardec proper), I maintain what I call a bóveda, literally a “vault” (as in either the vault of a church or the vault of a tomb—either sense is appropriate), which is a table covered in a white tablecloth, a number of glasses of water (one larger than the rest at the center), a candle, and photos of my ancestors or images and trinkets for my spirit guides and other assisting spirits of the dead in my life.  I keep it clean, I refill the glasses every so often with filtered water, I clean the glasses once a month (or once a season if I get lazy), I buy fresh flowers for it every time I go to the grocery store, and the like.  Every morning when I wrap up my usual daily prayers over at my Hermetic shrine and after I do anything else in my temple room for the morning, I’ll always greet my bóveda and salute all the spirits of the dead in my life, familial or otherwise, and offer a short prayer for our communal and universal ascension, enlightenment, and empowerment.

The opening and closing of this short little daily chat (more like a check-in, I suppose) I have with them is basically a small back-and-forth.  To open up:

Me: “May the peace, mercy, blessing, grace, light and power of God be with you all.”
Them: “And with you.”
Us: “Amen.”

And to close:

Me: “May the peace, mercy, blessing, grace, light and power of God be with us all.”
Them: “Forever and ever.”
Me: “World without end.”
Us: “Amen.”

It’s a simple way for my dead and I to pray together.  After all, while much of my other practice has me offering prayers to a deity or enshrined spirit, with the dead at my bóveda, it’s a little different; it’s less me praying to them, and more us praying together.  To that end, while some of the prayers I recite are just me reciting it for their benefit, other prayers are ones where there’s a sort of cycle and flow between me and them, as if we’re reciting things in unison or alternating lines of a prayer.

In addition to my daily and monthly/seasonal stuff I do with them, I’ll also sit down once a week (usually Sunday or Monday evenings) and have an actual “liturgy” with them, so to speak, where I’ll light several candles, give them incense, and recite a litany of prayers while also having a good in-depth conversation about whatever it is I need to know or whatever it is I need them to know, to do work, to plan ahead, and the like.  It’s here that I’ll expand on the prayers that get recited, some of which are just me reciting them and taking the lead on the prayers, but there are also points at which I’ll let them pray, which can take one of two forms.  Sometimes it’s just sitting at the bóveda and listening to them in silent contemplation, but other times it’ll be a specific spirit who stands up and leads a prayer which I’ll tune in more closely and verbalize physically, following their lead.  Not only do I find this a good way to practice “mediumship-lite” or “mini-channeling” skills, but it also helps me bring myself closer into attunement and intimacy with these spirits while also facilitating the prayers they themselves wish to have said in the exact ways they say them.

It was one such prayer that one of my dead recited a few days ago, and the language and sentiments expressed were…well, it’s not something I would come up with or which I’d contemplate, but it moved me to a few tears.  While I can’t get the language right after the fact (think of how difficult it is to capture the beauty of an extemporaneous, ejaculatory prayer made on the spot fright from the heart after you’ve said it), I would like to capture some of what was said to share with others.

O God, look upon us, your children,
as all human creatures are your children, and so are we—
but, behold! siblings of each other as we are,
we are but orphans, lost in this world,
huddled around a single candle in a darkened church
shivering from cold, holding onto each other for warmth.
And yet, in this dark and cold church, even should none else gaze upon us,
we huddle around this single flame and draw the warmth of life from it,
we hold onto each other and draw the hope for life from one another.

Yea, though we are but orphans, we are yet your children,
and this whole world is still your church,
and even should we march out of this place—and we shall, and we will, according to your design—
still we would yet find you, and be found by you.
Even should none else look upon us, we implore you—and you do, and you will, according to your mercy—
to look with favor upon us, to offer us succor of the heart and the soul,
that we might always have nourishment for ourselves, sharing it with each other.
O God, look upon us, your children, all siblings we,
and though orphaned in the world, that we may return to you as our home.

Prayers like this don’t go on for particularly long; between my other obligations and stamina for long durations of channeling, my spirits have the good sense and grace to make their prayers punctually and sharply and then yield the time back to me so we can move on with what we need to do.  Even if something like this were to go on longer, I’m not sure how much I’d be able to meaningfully keep up with, much less recount after the fact.  And yet, parts of this prayer, the imagery involved in it—I mean, while I can’t really prove it, I claim that this is evidence that this isn’t stuff coming from me, but from them.  And they, in their many years of both life and death, have plenty of experience to draw on, not only from older liturgical and prayer traditions but also from their own lives and scenes that they beheld or, indeed, lived through.

And here, in this prayer that one of my spirits recited (one of my spirit guides, I should note, not one of my ancestors), we see this beautiful but heart-breaking notion: this world is hard, and all we have at the end of the day is each other and God.  Sure, to borrow a line from George R. R. Martin, “the night is long and full of terrors”, but so is the day.  The same plant that might offer fruit might also offer thorns; the same animal that might give milk and fur might also give hooves and horns.  This world is, for better or worse, a world apart from us, and despite whatever we might do to make it more hospitable to us, it is under no obligation to do so.  On top of that, there are always other people in the world who wouldn’t treat us as kindly as we might treat them, who wouldn’t help us as we might try to help them.  The world is hard, and it’s easy to become lost, to feel lost, to feel forsaken, as if the suffering we go through is all that we have to look forward to.

And that’s just not true, because no matter how hard things might be, there are people looking out for us—each other—and even if we might feel lost in this world, we still have Divinity to orient ourselves by and to head towards.  Even if a single candleflame can only give off but so much heat, it helps us all the same, does it not?  It reminds us that, even in the darkness, there can still be light, and even in the cold, there can still be warmth.  And it’s not like this is something limited to “this dark and cold church”; after all, such a church is still part of the wider world, and such a church is also a symbol for the whole world.  Whether we leave the cold, dark church of our inward despair to rejoin with the warm, bright world of the comfort and ease that others can provide us, or whether we leave the cold, dark world of humanity to rejoin in the warm, bright heaven of God, either way, we must always remind ourselves to keep on, to not give up our light and our life, to hold onto each other as we hold onto hope itself.  After all, no matter how alone we might feel in the world, so long as we have each other and God, then we’ve got all we need to get by.  “No man is an island”, after all, and it’s not like Divinity is closed off to anyone, either.

I had originally planned to put out this post on Monday or Tuesday, but life got in the way and I ended up putting this off a few days longer than I wanted.  Because I said that I wanted to share the prayer that my spirit guide shared with me, they said that it’d be okay, so long as I did so; I hadn’t yet (before now), and they kept reminding me.  If I had gotten this out sooner, I might have recalled more of the language used or the meaning that it held in that moment, but I hope that this suffices for at least a few of us who might benefit from such a thing.  I don’t share this as some sort of formal prayer to recite or implement as part of a prayer routine, but rather, as a prayer and contemplation for all to remind us that—as the days get shorter and nights get longer, as the temperatures drop and the clouds come for those of us in the northern hemisphere—there’s never truly darkness if we hold onto even the barest glimmer of Light.

On Learning How to Imagine

Like the last post, here’s another great question that came in over email:

Here’s a question about something that hindered me in my Hermetic training: what is visualization? Is it imagining an image in your mind? How do you do it? And how do you know you’re doing it correctly? When ever I try to visualize, I try to picture the thing or event in my head, but I have never been able to consistently keep a mental image for more than five to ten seconds.  Am I doing it correctly?  Do you have any tips or guide on how to visualize?

My reply:

So, “visualization” is a more specific method of the more general term “imagination”.  When you use your imagination, you come up with images—and despite how we often use the term, “images” aren’t necessarily sight-oriented things.  An image is, more generally, a representation of simulation of something within the mind without any direct or immediate input from your physical senses.

Thus, if you were to imagine, say, an apple, there’s lots to simulate within your mind: the color of an apple (a hue ranging from pale green to a deep red), yes, and its shape (round), but also the texture of it (waxy and cool on the outside, slick and sandpaper-like on the inside), the scent of it (fresh, acidic, tart), the weight of it, and so forth and so on.  Note how little of this is “visual”: there is a visual component to it to be sure, but there are a whole bunch of other components to it as well that combine to come up with a complete image that goes far beyond merely what an apple looks like.  When a lot of modern books talk about “visualization”, they’re fundamentally just talking about “imagination”, but because most people (about 65%) are visually-oriented people (i.e. they rely primarily on sight to build and approach the world as opposed to hearing or smell as primary senses), “visualization” works as a term for most people, but you have other senses, too, so you should use them all, even if one or more are stronger than the others.

How do you imagine something correctly?  If the image is something you’ve experienced before (like an apple), consider how well the imagination matches up with your memory of the same thing.  If the image isn’t something you’ve experienced before, you can’t rely on memory, but you can mentally extrapolate from other things and make a good guess.  It’s like dreaming in a way: not everything we dream is merely a remix of things we’ve experienced.  So long as you’re imagining something to an appropriate or desired level of detail, you’re imagining it “correctly”.

As far as making an image in your imagination last more than a few seconds: it just takes practice.  Keep working at it, practicing on small things for a short time, then small things for a longer time, working your way up to big things for a short time to big things for a longer time.  Over time, you’ll find that not only will you be able to hold an image in your mind indefinitely (so long as you don’t break concentration!), but you’ll also be able to imagine things in far more elaborate and complex detail.  Start with simple pencils and apples (small everyday objects), then move to larger everyday objects that have more parts involved (computer desks or cars), then to even larger objects (a room of a house, a whole house, a whole parcel of property with a house on it), and so on.  If it’s hard at first, you’re in good company; this is a skill that requires practice and training, and despite the overwhelming prevalence of “visualization” in a lot of modern occult texts and guides, in many traditional cultures and practices, something of this kind was often considered an *advanced* practice rather than a beginner’s one.

Likewise, doing things that build up your skill of concentration is something that goes hand-in-hand with this.  In our modern world filled with endless stimuli to keep us busy or distracted, between 280-character tweets or 30-second TikToks or news chyrons flowing endlessly from one topic to the next to YouTube commercials playing in endless varying loops breaking up longer videos every few seconds, so much of the world around us gears us to instant gratification, talking-heads syndromes, and the like.  Resist that.  There’s no one way to build up your concentration, but learning what a distraction is and how it trains/conditions your mind to expect certain things or react to certain inputs is an important part of it, as is eliminating distractions in your life, setting yourself to the discipline of doing one thing for an extended period of time without looking at your phone or other tabs in your browser, meditation, going for extended walks, and the like.  One way I like to suggest doing this is to take a non-cellphone timer, put your cellphone on silent and away, and sit down to read a book for some length of time (5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.).  It doesn’t matter what the book is (and, honestly, the more boring it is the better); the point is to just sit down and read it without letting your mind wander off.  That itself is concentration, which is basically a form of mental stamina and discipline that we all have to cultivate.

I should note at this point that there is the phenomenon of aphantasia, which is the inability to imagine things.  It’s not well-studied, but there are a number of people (maybe between 1% and 5% of the general population) who claim that they just can’t imagine stuff, neither with visualization nor any other mental “sense”.  You don’t seem to be in this category by your own admission, but even for aphantasic people, there are other approaches to magic and mysticism that simply don’t rely on it (the use of dream that a number of aphantasic people report they have, recalling memory, etc.).  However, the use of the imagination to construct mental objects and worlds is a useful skill for anyone who isn’t aphantasic, so do give yourself the time to develop it as a skill.

I’ll be honest: how often do I use imagination in magic or ritual?  It depends, but…it’s hard to sort out sometimes what’s my “imagination” (as in something I’m actively constructing) versus what I’m getting from other inputs (like spirits putting an image into my mind).  For daily prayer, making offerings, or divination, imagination doesn’t really come into it at all.  For contemplating and delving deeply into a topic, notion, or semantic field (e.g. the spiritual world of a planet or element), imagination is used hugely.  When working with spirits…it’s complicated, since I’m not really sure what’s clearly on either side of my-imagination vs. its-image something might be on, because the imagination (as I consider it) is the faculty by which I sense (and make sense) of spiritual realities.  I genuinely don’t know how conjuration of a spirit works for someone who is aphantasic without resorting to tools like yes-no divination to ascertain whether a spirit is present or not, or how strongly someone might translate imagination into physical senses (e.g. someone getting physical sensations like goosebumps or temperature fluctuations in their body around spirits and translating that into spiritual information).

I admit, it’s hard for me to consider what the world would be like for an aphantasic person, because I’ve always had an active and busy imagination for as long as I can remember.  At the same time, I also recall actively diving into imagined, imaginative worlds as a child, playing with imaginary friends, reading fantasy stories and extrapolating from them to continue the story further in my mind with me taking the role of a character, and the like.  Because of that, I don’t consider my imaginative skills to be something inborn, but rather something cultivated and practiced, for much the same reason that someone taking music lessons as a child and just playing around with instruments generally ends up becoming a musician without music being some sort of inborn ability.  Imagination is a skill like so many others, and as a result, requires practice and cultivation in order to become useful beyond a few seconds or beyond a glimpse or so.

In today’s world of modern media where so much is already just given to us (movies, TV, YouTube, TikTok, video games, augmented reality, virtual reality, etc.), it’s a skill that can easily be forsaken because of (shall we say) platform redundancy; why bother imagining things and constructing your own world when you can have a whole world just delivered to you through your already-inborn physical senses?  At the risk of saying what doesn’t need to be said due to its obviousness, I don’t think that’s a useful approach for mages and mystics—or anyone really.  After all, to live just in someone else’s worlds is to give up the right to build and live in your own, which I strongly feel is a matter of self-expression and self-fulfillment.  For most people who are surrounded by constant media, their own skills of imagination can easily become attenuated or enervated, just like how learning a language in a non-immersive environment and never having a chance to use it outside book exercises can make it difficult to understand or apply that language.

Imagination is a skill.  At least for those who have the capacity for it, it needs to be developed, built up, cultivated, and maintained just like any other.

To Keep On Keeping On

It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at or used CuriousCat (remember all those posts and tweets from back in the day?), but that doesn’t mean I stopped replying to questions generally.  Whether it’s on Discord or over email or on Facebook or whatever, I still try to keep myself open to discussion, explanation, and sharing ideas or notions when people ask.  And, recently, two people pinged me on two different platforms separately with basically the same question: how do I deal with doubt and disbelief in my spiritual life?

Phrased one way (on Discord):

A question about faith: a lot of what I have read is about awakening to the understanding of the Truth, but do you ever struggle with faith itself?  Like, do you ever have days where you wake up and doubt everything you’ve read, and wonder if it isn’t all just a comfort to soothe the human condition?  And what helps you in those moments?

Phrased another way (over email):

How do you deal with doubt and belief?  I’ve been an on-and-off practitioner of the Hermetic path, but I have always had doubt and lack of belief that any of this is real, whether I’m wasting my time studying this or whether I’m a fool for believing in magic. How do I deal with these doubts?

When multiple people ask me separately the same question all at once, I think that’s a good thing to discuss publicly, because chances are they’re not the only ones with such questions.

As I read it, the questions I were asked above got the same answer, which I’ll share below:

The easy and short answer is that I don’t do anything to deal with these issues, and that nothing really helps with concerns about doubt or lack of faith—nothing, at least, beyond just carrying on.  For me, these moments of doubt or struggles I might have with faith (and I do absolutely have them from time to time) are little more than passing moods; nothing renders me unshakably confident in these things beyond just going back to the texts and reminding myself of why I’m doing this at all, and what got me here to begin with.

Like, the whole point of me doing all of this <waves vaguely> is because, ultimately, I’m not convinced. I’m here to find out and experience all this stuff for myself, to show to myself that this stuff is experientially real. Hermēs Trismegistos doesn’t preach “believe or perish”, after all; he teaches “believe and find out” (a similar notion to the saying “trust but verify”). And so far, so much of what I’ve seen, read, and done in a Hermetic context has worked and shown itself to be basically as Hermēs discusses it that I have good reason to believe the rest (for the most part) is good, too. I just need to keep going to see for myself.

When it comes to magic specifically, sure, I occasionally doubt the efficacy and meaning of what it is I’m doing. And then I go back to the stories I’ve heard from others about their successful workings, and I go back to my own experiences that have shown me incontrovertibly that this stuff works and that I’m not just making it up. (I mean, everything is made up to one degree or another. What matters isn’t whether something is made up and real, but rather whether something is made up and works.)

While it’d be great to have an unshakeable faith in this stuff with a level of confidence that flatly doesn’t permit doubt, I don’t think I’m at that level yet (though I am working towards it). Much like my own sensitivity to what other people think of me, over time, concerns of that nature just diminish and eventually go away. I don’t have to do anything about it, so long as it doesn’t keep me from actively doing what I need to do along my own spiritual path and journey; doubts and fears like this only become a problem if they actively get in my way from practicing. And, really, “practice” is what all this is really about: we don’t call it the Great Work for nothing! We’re constantly working at it, and we’re constantly practicing it to get better at it. So long as we keep that up, we’re doing just what we need to do.

I know it can get hard at times, but let’s be honest: we wouldn’t be doing it if it were easy.  This isn’t to say that we should be suffering all the time, but this is just part of the challenge we have to work through and work past.  The only thing to do is to keep doing it.  The Work is easy in good times, to be sure, but it actually becomes work in the hard times, and that’s what matters.  We labor and toil, and eventually we reap and we feast, but if you don’t do the work, you don’t get the rewards.  It can feel hopeless at times, but even though hope is what often gets us through the day, having hope isn’t the point; the point is to just do the work, come what may.