On Want and Work

So much for working on my book over the past month; between ceremony and office work, as well as starting to go to the gym (finally, after far too long), turns out that I didn’t have as much time set aside, even after not working on my blog as much.  Fah.  Ah well, time goes on, and work will continue.  But, of course, writing is just one part of my work; I love to research, to construct rituals, to make connections, and to put them down on paper (physical or electronic).  Writing for this blog, helping others out in figuring out their own ceremonial or magical problems for solutions and workarounds, doing divinations, and writing my book (slowly) are all deeply satisfying for me, because it feels productive and, moreover, makes me feel helpful to others.  There’s also the research aspect of the Work that I love: studying the prayers and songs and chants, planning out ceremonies and rituals down to the individual motions and seconds, and seeing how individual motions and moments connect across a ceremony to produce a single, unified result.  That, too, is valuable and worth our time.

But we don’t call it the Writing, or the Research, or the Lesson, or the Study.  We call it the Work, because without Work, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.  You can study and research and write all you want, but if you never put paper to practice, you don’t get much of anywhere.  And, from time to time, I catch myself slipping back into the comfort of the armchair and realize that, well, one position maintained too long starts to get uncomfortable, and eventually, the whole body becomes sore from sitting down so long, and the only way to stop that soreness is to…well, get out of the chair, stand up, and do some Work.  And yet, once you sit down for too long, it’s easy to forget what, exactly, to do once you stand up again.

One way some astute readers of mine can figure out what sorts of projects I’m doing, if any at all, is to note the rate at which I post stuff, what the focuses and trends are on the things I write about, and how much I say about it.  Looking back over the years, it’s easy to note the slow periods of my writing, and there’s a definite correlation between the things I do and the things I write: if I’m doing a lot, I tend to write a lot, and if I’m not writing a lot, it’s generally because I’m not doing a lot.  It’s not always true, of course, as there are always things I can find to write about (assuming I’m in the mood for writing and have the words to put to paper for it): between managing a geomancy group on Facebook, keeping abreast (sometimes) of conversations on social media, seeing particular issues crop up in people’s lives, and finding neat tidbits to talk about from the PGM or other source texts, there’s plenty to be said in general, but when it comes to an actual impetus for writing, it’s often tied up with having an impetus to Work.

And, lately, I haven’t been Working much.

Sure, I can point to a variety of factors as to why I might not be doing as much of my own experimentation and ritual: my three hours a day commuting, the time I spend on an almost weekly basis working ceremony for the Lukumí/Santería community (and all the study and obligations that go along with that), household upkeep, going to the gym, trying to spend time with friends, staying in the office doing actual work to bring in money while I stay in my manager’s good graces, and so on and so on.  Still, some of this sounds…more like excuses than anything else, because heaven and hell know that I’ve been able to do quite a bit more with as much on my plate as I have now.  And that doesn’t change the fact that, if one were to think that Lukumí is becoming my primary “mode” and Thing now, that I’m not doing much outside of ceremony for myself; sure, I spend time with my orisha, but I’m not really going to them either for much of stuff that I want.

And that’s the crux of it all: I don’t want much.  It’s not that I don’t want much, it’s that I don’t want much.  I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, Want is the drive for Work.  It’s all well and good to practice one’s conjuration skills with the angels or demons of your choice and flavor, but to me, I feel somewhat bad about conjuring them for its own sake without a purpose.  I could practice sigils or candlework, but if it’s just for the fuck of it, how can I really put any intent into it besides half-heartedly, half-assedly saying some prayers and throwing some energy around?  It seems like, without having a goal or purpose or need or…really, a Want to drive my work, everything I could think of doing seems empty and pointless, and so that reduces me to simply studying about things, and even that tends to be scattered and unfocused.

I mean, as far as modes of living go, I lead a pretty good life, and definitely among the most privileged in the world, too.  I’m in good health overall, I’m college-educated, I have a home and a mortgage payment, I have a car of my own that’s paid off, I have clothes and finery aplenty of my own, I’m married to the love of my life, I’m gainfully employed in a stable and well-paying job, I have family and friends and godfamily and colleagues that I care about and who care about me, and I make some good side-cash out of my hobbies of writing, crafting, and occult work.  I’m not shitting on myself by saying this: I’m basically living a middle-class dream, which is rare for US millennials nowadays, and my life is easily the envy of billions of people across the world.  (Many of the lives of my readers, too, as a matter of fact; the fact you have a computer and are educated enough to read my blog attests to having at least a few successes of your own, even if by the grace of luck and birth.)  To put it bluntly, many of my needs are met, as far as the needs of normal human beings go.

But…well, you and I are not normal human beings.  We’re not satisfied merely by being successful in this world, are we?  The usual middle-class dream is definitely nice to live, but that’s not our real dream, is it?  The adventures and situations of sitcoms and television dramas might be enough for some to aspire to, but even I have to admit that they bored me to tears; no, it’s the adventures and mishaps of fantasy and sci-fi novels that would satisfy me.  At heart, I admit that I want to go above and beyond the normal, mundane, humdrum existence of human life, to experience what few to no others experience, see what few to no others see, go where few to no others dream of stepping into, speak what few to no others dare to utter.

It might be said that an ideal life is a buffet: you get your plate, you get what you want from the buffet (if it’s available), you sit back down, you eat, and you continue eating until you’re full.  I suppose that metaphor works well enough for most people, but again, you and I aren’t most people, are we?  For us, we don’t really have a finite stomach that can be filled with a plate or three of simple food you can find at a buffet.  Remember that, etymologically, the word “appetite” comes from Latin “ad + petere”, meaning “to seek out”; for us, life isn’t an appetite we want to simply satisfy, but a longing to seek out, explore, and flush out as much as we can.  Most people are content with a small, finite number of finite types of food, but you and I know better, don’t we?  There is no such thing as a finite set of experiences, a finite set of places, a finite sets of ideas, a finite set of words; all we have is a finite length of time to live, and we better do our damned best to sample shallowly from or dive deeply into whatever we Want out of the infinite patterns and arrangements of Life.

Sure, I can be content with my life; after all, I’m doing pretty well.  But why should I be content with what I have, when I have so much more out there that could be gotten or sampled?  Yes, the things I have are good, but they’re not perfect, and they can always be improved.  Yes, the life I live is sufficient for most people, but it’s only if I shut off the magician-trickster part of my mind that I could stand to consider it “enough”; after all, I have a better idea than “most people” about the depth and breadth and height and width and girth of possible reality and irreality; why be happy confined to this little tiny tower of mine, when there’s a whole world out there to explore?

It’s easy to slip into a mindset of “this is enough” or “I shouldn’t ask for more”; it’s easy to fall into a pattern of commonality, of vulgar banality, by simply accepting things the way they are and making yourself content with it.  True, there are things in the world that we cannot change, for which we must accept them as they are; it’s a good mindset to have where one should think “change this, or change myself”.  However, I don’t think many realize exactly how much there is in the world that we don’t have to simply accept, how much there is in the world that we have the power to change.  And, for the things we cannot necessarily change and which we must accept that happen, there are many things we can change, barter, bargain, or tweak about how it happens.  Yes, the walls of Troy were indeed destined to fall, but the city could have lasted another ten years in safety and prosperity, if only Aphrodite had asked Poseidon who built them.

In any software engineering project, an application isn’t really “finished” once it’s deployed.  Sure, the design may have been implemented to the letter in code and compilation, but just because it’s out being used doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.  There will always be people who have problems using the program, and changes must be made to accommodate them; there will always be bugs lurking in the code, and corrections must be made to eliminate them; there will always be areas of inefficiency in the program, and improvements must be made to optimize them.  So it is with life: no matter how good or complete you might think it is, there are always things to improve on, because there’s always some quirk, some annoyance, some inefficiency, some blindspot that can be found and improved on.  For those who have rough lives, magic is easy to learn and put to practice; for those who have good lives, what few problems they have can still be resolved using magic.  The Work makes the lives of all better, no matter where you start from, so long as you do the Work.  Having dire needs is easy to fire up your Want to fuel your Work, but for those who don’t need much, it’s harder to build that fire of Want.

Summer’s a lovely time for bonfires and to stock up on fuel for the coming, lengthening nights.  So, whether you think you’ll need to keep warm by a rusty trashcan fire or enjoy the light from a gilded fireplace, let’s start gathering while the gathering’s good, eh?

No matter whether you’re a ceremonial magician, neopagan, academic philosopher, or someone who’s just sorta interested in the occult, I’d like all of my readers to try a little exercise with me to figure out what it is we Want out of our pathetic lives.

  1. Get two pieces of paper and a pen (not a pencil, but a pen or some other permanent writing tool).  At the top of one sheet, write “DO”.  At the top of the other sheet, write “HAVE”.
  2. On the “HAVE” sheet, write out all of the things you already currently have, enjoy, and accomplish in your life.  Everything you’re satisfied with, everything you’ve worked to attain and then attained, everything you’re content with, everything you think you should be happy with, write them down, item by item.
  3. On the “DO” sheet, write out all of the things you want to do that you have not yet done, or get that you don’t yet have.  It could be big, it could be small; it could be meaningful, it could be trivial.  It doesn’t matter.  Write them down anyway, so long as it’s not already on the “HAVE” sheet.
  4. Go back to the “HAVE” sheet.  For all the things you already have, branch off each item and add onto it the things that can be improved on.  If you already have a home of your own, what can you do to improve it, or would you instead want a better, nicer home?  If you already have a car, what about trading it in for a better one, or souping it up on your own?  If you already have a job, what about getting a promotion, or moving to a new career, or changing how you get income entirely?  I guarantee you that each and every thing you already have can be improved on in at least some fashion; aim for at least two things to improve on for each and every thing you have, or cross it out entirely if you genuinely cannot think of how to improve on it, if you even have any desire to.
  5. Go back to the “DO” sheet.  For all the things you already want to get, make it more specific; improve on the improvements.  Make the things you want to get more concrete, more actualized, more detailed; think not only of purpose and goal, but of means and method as well.  Be specific.  If you find that something you want to get is already an improvement of something you already have, cross it out.
  6. Once you’re done with the “HAVE” and “DO” sheets, copy all the new items over from the “HAVE” sheet to the “DO” sheet.
  7. Look over each item on the “DO” sheet.  This is the time to judge whether you want to devote the time and energy to something; if you have anything to reconsider about a given item on it, cross it off, but leave the remnant of it there.
  8. Burn the “HAVE” sheet with intent to start off your own fire of Want.
  9. Use the “DO” sheet as your high-living to-do list, and keep it sacred as a special text for you to follow.

It doesn’t matter how good you think your life might be, because your life can always be improved.  The Work isn’t done until your life is done, and I claim with some certainty that we’re not done yet, so why waste our time sitting in an armchair that makes us sore?  Let’s get to Work.

49 Days of Definitions: Part IX, Definition 4

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the thirty-ninth definition, part IX, number 4 of 7:

Soul’s illness: sadness and joy; soul’s passions: desire and opinion.  Bodies are silimar to souls when they are seen: none (is) ugly (if it is) good, none is evil (if it is) honest.  Everything is visible to one who has Nous; who(ever) thinks of himself in Nous knows himself and who(ever) knows himself knows everything.  Everything is within man.

The Definitions have been good in explaining things at a high level: where we came from, what our job is, the nature of God, and so forth.  Being short as it is, however, it doesn’t afford us many of the details to a lot of the questions it brings up.  This is how we have a traditions of philosophy that go back for two thousand years and analytic texts that help explain the core tenets of a religion and how things play out based on actual scripture which, almost always, doesn’t answer every question in full.  That’s often the point; what’s the point of describing the nature of God to someone who doesn’t know what God is?  The core texts exist to help get the proper footing needed to start learning and experiencing on our own.  Likewise, with the Definitions, we’re not told much about some of the things that we may want to know.  For instance, consider the soul: we know that all moving things have souls and that Man’s soul is different from other types of soul.  We know the high-level bare-bones theory of the soul, but we haven’t talked much about the nitty-gritty details of soul.  While we don’t (and can’t) know everything from a simple single text, we can get a basic grasp of it from learning and reasonable speech, which the Definitions provide us.  And this short definition has quite a lot to unpack.

Here, we learn that the soul isn’t something immutable: it has illnesses and passions.  Illnesses, broadly speaking, are temporary conditions where something is afflicted and cannot function properly.  For instance, a cold or catching the flu are illnesses, where the body’s immune system is compromised and several parts of the body go out of whack for a short while.  Some illnesses don’t affect us much and are as quickly lost as they were caught; some have a sudden onset and kill us; some linger around forever waiting for an opportunity to strike in tandem with something else to kill us.  Passions, on the other hand, are strongly felt emotions or mental states that drive us to action; the root word for this in English comes from Latin meaning “to suffer”, while the Greek means “feeling”, “suffering”, or “what befalls to one”.  Passions change us, drive us, and steer us to certain actions that normally might not be taken.  The difference between illnesses and passions is that illnesses affect someone from the outside; they’re never caught in isolation (I’m referring only to the common sense of communicable diseases, not genetic or other “natural” diseases).  Passions, however, arise from within.  If we restrict the meaning of “illness” to communicable diseases, passions might be associated with genetic disorders or other internal states such as heat, hunger, or fatigue.

We now know that the soul has two illnesses, “sadness and joy”, which arise from external causes.  The soul doesn’t make itself sad or happy, but gets the causes for these things from outside itself: the body, things that happen to the body or soul, and other external events or entities.  Likewise, the soul has two passions, “desire and opinion”, which arise from internal causes.  The soul creates these or are predisposed to these things on its own; we don’t directly get desires or opinions from outside ourselves, but come up with them on our own.  Of course, the two are connected; emotions (“illnesses”) can provide the impetus for passions, such as finding something that makes us happy and us leading to believe that we should get more of it.  Likewise, passions can help produce emotions once effected, such as desiring something that we cannot obtain, the lack of which makes us sad.

The illnesses and passions of the soul, though different and arising from different sources, are intertwined in a complex way.  Both, however, afflict the soul.  A healthy soul free of illness would be free from sadness or joy, and a calm soul free of passions would be free from desire and opinion.  Of course, no soul in a body can be properly free of these things; these are all qualities, and a soul gains “quality and quantity as well as good and evil” when it gains a body, “for matter brings about such things” (VII.4).  These things cloud the judgment, knowledge, and action of the soul, and so change the movement, function, and state of the body that it inhabits.  Because the soul would not have these things without a body, the body can be said to be the cause of both soul-illness and soul-passion, though it may not be the source for their’ arising.  Just as bodily illnesses prevent the body from acting the way it should, soul-illnesses prevent the soul from acting as it should.  Similarly, just as bodily passions drive the body to act in certain ways, soul-passions drive the soul to act in certain ways.  While all illnesses are to be avoided since they prevent action, not all passions are bad if they drive us to act a certain way; after all, it’s a good and healthy passion of the body to live and eat, and it’s a good and healthy passion of the soul to desire and know Nous (VII.3).  (The terminology here hints at Hermeticism’s influence from classical Stoicism, one of my favorite philosophies.)

Why are things like sadness and joy bad?  After all, while sadness might be seen as undesirable (note how a passion here comes into play!), we often find joy and happiness to be desirable and fun.  Keep in mind, however, that these are things that arise from external things, which are material in nature.  If we pursue the material for the sake of the material, or if we produce things that make us happy because they make us happy, then we’re effectively rising no higher than the material realm where these things exist.  If we pursue things for their own sake or for a proper opinion of them (as developed by Logos and Nous within ourselves), and if we become happy in the process, awesome, but that shouldn’t be the goal of our pursuit and only serves to distract us if we hold onto that feeling.  (I’m reminded of the Zen koan “if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him”.)  It’s normal for us to be afflicted by sadness and joy as we go through the world doing our stuff, just as we’re accosted by germs and parasites and viruses every time we leave the house to go to work or the store.  We get these things that may make us sick in the course of doing something else; we don’t try to hold onto them, so that way we don’t get distracted from what we went outside our houses for.  If we become happy on the way to the grocer because we enjoy driving, we don’t keep driving for the sake of driving hoping that it continues to make us happy.  We drive to get to the store and we drive back, lest we run out of gas on the road and end up never going to the store or getting home.  Likewise, if we become happy or sad in the process of our Work, that’s just what happens to us; we should shrug it off naturally as the body sheds off illnesses naturally,

Opinions and desires, on the other hand, drive us to do different things based on what we consider.  These are things that arise up out of the soul from different intelligible causes; according to opinion, after all, many gods have come into being that are not God (VIII.1), yet, through unreasonable speech and opinions, are worshiped as ultimate divinity for spiritual or political reasons (VIII.3).  While the Nous dwelling within the soul provides a set of natural opinions and desires that would help us lead proper lives, we as humans are capable of choosing them or choosing other ones that can lead to God or to elsewhere (VIII.6).  Depending on what external stimuli we have, our opinions and desires are swayed both by them and by Nous, and depending on which tendencies to action are stronger, our bodies and selves are led to act in certain ways by our souls, which can produce more sets of external stimuli.  For instance, we desire to go to the store to get food to cook for the week, but we may be tempted by an immediate hunger and a carelessness of money and go to a fancy restaurant instead.  Likewise, we may desire to study magic or religion, but we can be persuaded by other people to study this tradition instead of that one or no tradition at all, or we can get tempted to use it more of a means to impress or socialize other people because we think it more helpful to us instead of studying it for its own sake as a means to gnosis.

Sadness and joy, the illnesses of the soul, happen to us and afflict us as they will; just as exposing ourselves to bodily illness largely can’t be avoided, so too do we expose ourselves to them, though we can take measures and caution to make sure they don’t affect us too much and prevent us from acting how we will.  Desires and opinions, however, are much more within our control, and how do we form these?  With deliberation and our use of reason and speech, which help to provide knowledge (V.2).  By this knowledge we come to understand the world around us, which helps to provide knowledge of God.  Thus, by even trying to know God as bodily beings, we expose ourselves to danger and affliction, but this is just part of being a material being with qualities, quantities, and “good and evil”.  We should choose good, but what is good?  Knowledge, which is God, which is Nous, which is light (IX.2).  When we have Nous and knowledge, we know things as they are (II.2), which produces desires and opinions that lead us to where we need to be.

Thus, when we truly see things, we know them as they are.  “Bodies are similar to souls when they are seen: none is ugly if it is good, none is evil if it is honest”.  We do not fear the things we know (IX.3), so we are not averted by them; thus, if things are good, we know them as they are and as part of God, and so they are not “ugly”, which would cause fear and aversion if we did not truly see them.  Similarly, if they are honest, they show themselves as they are, not hiding anything.  If something hides itself without honesty, it is a lie, which is a result of unreasonable speech; further, if it hides from light which is Nous, it clouds knowledge of itself and produces darkness, the absence of light.  These things are then “evil”, since they prevent knowledge from being obtained.  These things hide, and hiding is caused by fear (IX.3), which is caused by a lack of knowledge, which is ignorance, which is evil (VII.5).  We can draw several comparisons here:

  • Things that are good are not ugly (causing attraction)
  • Things that are good are honest (truth)
  • Things that are evil are ugly (causing aversion)
  • Things that are evil are not honest (lies)
  • Things that are ugly are not honest
  • Things that are honest are not ugly

With light, one can see; with knowledge, nothing is hidden (V.2).  Nous is knowledge; thus, “everything is visible to one who has Nous”, since Nous sees all things (V.1).  Further, since one’s self is within Nous as everything is, “whoever thinks of himself in Nous knows himself and whoever knows himself knows everything” (cf. the Delphic maxim “know thyself”). Everything is within God, which is Nous.  If we know ourselves, we know God, and if we know ourselves, we know everything.  Thus, this definition finishes with a powerful statement: “everything is within man”.  We’ve seen references to this before: “man is a small world…a perfect world whose magnitude does not exceed…the world” (I.4);”God is within himself, the world is in God, and man in the world” (VII.5).  We are a microcosm, a reflection of the world as well as of God, and if we know one part of the Whole, we come to know the Whole, so if we come to know ourselves, we come to know the Whole, which is everything.  Everything is within us.