On the Inconvenience of Wholeness

Earlier this winter, I was taking the train to work in the morning, as I usually do.  It was during one of the exceptionally cold days—I honestly don’t think I’ve ever experienced negative degrees Fahrenheit before—and I was ruing sitting against the window, as I usually do (the sitting, not the ruing).  I take the standard Northern approach to winter clothing, applying layer after layer after layer until you end up a spherical mess of unflattering insulation, but even then, it didn’t seem to work as well as I had hoped that morning.  Worse, I had to pee, and I typically try to avoid that on the trains.  Yeah, there are bathrooms on the commuter trains, but trying to wiggle out past the person sitting next to me, wobbling down an unsteady train down to the bathroom in the next car, then having to undo layer after layer of unflattering insulation just to take a leak wasn’t worth it.  I just held it until I got to the office.

The whole experience recalled to mind a method of excreting bodily waste in abnormally or dangerously low temperatures: the use of insulated diapers.  I thought it an amusing technique, both incredibly uncomfortable to sit in my own urine while simultaneously finding the warmth probably very welcome in below-zero temperatures.  Of course, I’m not a diaper fetishist, and the idea is far more uncomfortable to me than it is to others; it’d probably have to be truly, awfully cold outside, and I’d need to be out there for quite a long duration before even giving it a serious thought.  Still, the technique of it is valid, and if I were someone like a Siberian ice-fisher, I’d probably actually consider it.

Now, I don’t often think about diapers; I leave that to some of my other friends and colleagues for their own reasons.  No, I originally heard about the notion of insulated diapers from…well, of all places, a Legend of Zelda fanfic.  Yes, dear reader, your beloved/despised polyphanes is a nerd, and while I haven’t really read fanfic or engaged in much fandom in years, it was definitely a major influence on my formative teen life.  Between Myst, Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a handful of other anime and manga, I had quite the list going.  The Legend of Zelda fandom was probably the first one I started getting involved with, and there was this one site…god, it’s been years, and I can’t remember it, and I have no idea if it’s even online anymore.  It was, for the early 2000s, a fantastic fan-maintained resource of Zelda-related content, ranging from game walkthroughs to rumors of finding the Triforce in Ocarina of Time to, of course, fanfiction.  The site author maintained his own (as I judged it at the time) pretty epic storyline, and even I helped contribute with some of my own stuff.  It was a fascinating timesink for me.

The fanfic the site maintainer himself wrote was pretty involving, I have to admit, or at least for my 12-to-14-year-old self.  It had everything I could want: drama, an unexplored dichotomy leftover from the actual mythos of Zelda, exploration, and, of course, angst.  (Yes, I still have a soft spot for Linkin Park and Gackt, and my mom still fondly remembers my overuse of “angst!” cried out as an expression of frustration and…well, angst.)  There was one part in the fanfics the site author wrote that stuck in my mind, and which this cold train morning brought up after making the leap from insulated diapers: in an earlier part of the story, Link is sent on a quest to defeat the Truly Unspeakable Evil in a place far colder than Antartica (hence the insulation), but which was so evil, Link was warned not to give even an ounce or an inch of thought or credence to it, for to even give it that much would let the Truly Unspeakable Evil get a foothold in Link’s mind, which would inevitably lead to his corruption and ultimate doom.  Later on in the series, you can guess what happened; Link, as it turned out, gave a half-second’s thought of considering the merits of what the Truly Unspeakable Evil was proposing to Link as he approached the den of the Truly Unspeakable Evil, and that was just enough to plant the seed of Truly Unspeakable Evil in Link’s head, which eventually began to drive him to depression, to madness, and ultimately, to climb the heights of Death Mountain, watch the sunrise one last time, and fling himself over the edge to end it all so as to give in to the Truly Unspeakable Evil.  He didn’t die, of course; that’d be a poor end to a Zelda fanfic, indeed, and the fanfic author had more in mind to write.  Link was grievously wounded, to be sure, but he survived, and was rescued by his friends and allies and, together, they worked to (painfully, if I recall correctly) excise and exorcise the Truly Unspeakable Evil from Link’s mind and body.  It was a surprisingly sweet, uplifting, empowering story to read for a young teenager.

Now, as a somewhat older person with a little more (but only a little more) experience under my belt in both magic, spiritual works, demonic possession and obsession, and just life in general, I can look back and realize…well, first, how fucked up that story was.  I still think fondly of it, but christ, that was a dark story to read.  All the same, it does actually have strong parallels to some of the worst case scenarios of demonic affliction, and how, in some cases, demons can drive someone mad or burden them with depression, and ultimately, it is possible for a demon to drive someone to suicide.  But…now that I look back on it, there’s something that nags me about the whole thing.  I know that I’m evaluating the merits and virtues of a fanfic I read literally 15 years ago and only dimly recall, so please suspend your sense of absurdity for my sake, but…it almost seems like it was too easy for the Truly Unspeakable Evil to be so cleanly excised from Link.  Yeah, falling off a cliff a hundred meters tall would probably knock quite a bit out of you more than just wind, but…

Problems like depression and mania and anxiety or dementia, or psychological urges to murder, rape, abuse, and the like are, indeed, problems.  They’re human problems, of course, and so many of us suffer from them all the time.  We do our best to keep ourselves in good physical and mental health, and hold in our destructive and malefic urges so we can at least maintain a semblance of non-psychopathic decency.  While there’s a little bit of the Divine in all of us, a little shard of the Good, a little spark of the Nous, we’re still mortal and material creatures, born to die.  Matter, in the Gnostic-influenced Hermetic view, stands apart from God in several ways, and is largely considered evil, or at the very least, incredibly inconvenient.  (I’m reminded of the Douglas Adams quote: “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”)  Try as we might, there is not one of us who is truly good, because we’re not made to be; while the part of us that is Good can aspire to Goodness, a human being, when considered as a whole, is a mixture of both Good and Evil.  We’re both.  We have both blessings and curses, benefits and hindrances, positives and negatives.

A human being, any one of us, is a whole entity, and you can’t simply excise evil from a human.  You can’t just rip those destructive urges out, nor can you just banish anxiety and be done with it.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that one should have an urge to rape and kill, nor that we should be so “blessed” with depression and suicide; far from it, these are awful things that I wish we could do without, and work towards a day when we don’t have to worry about them and can maintain them so that they don’t pose a problem anymore, if not get rid of them completely.  But we all have our afflictions, our vices, our sins, and you can’t just fling yourself off a cliff to be rid of them, nor can you jam a red-hot sword into your flesh to burn it out.  Those who have these afflictions are still human, and still have an ounce of Good in them, no matter how covered up or small.  We all have our own essential dignity, so to speak.  But that dignity and that little bit of Good we have don’t excuse the shit we pull and the evil we make in the world around us or in the world within us; we can’t simply be forgiven for the awful, harmful things we do to ourselves or others, because forgiveness without remediation is wasted breath and energy.

We’re whole creatures.  We have good and bad within us, and we can’t really separate the bad out and claim it’s not us.  It’s part of us, and in a sense, it is us.  We have to own it.  We have to take responsibility for ourselves, and we have to actively work to make ourselves as Good as possible.  If only it were as simple as just letting the Good be Good, but it’s not; we have to fight, every second of every minute of every day of every month of every year we draw breath, to preserve the Good, protect the Good, enhance the Good, and elevate the Good, while fighting off the Bad, diminishing the Bad, restraining the Bad, and eventually controlling the Bad as best we can until we’re no longer human and no longer have the Bad as part of us.  Until then, the Bad is just as much as part of the whole of us as the Good is.

Being whole is inconvenient.  It’s not easy, and there’s no straightforward solution, no deus ex machina that can save us as the hero in our individual stories.  It’s not a problem to solve, but a predicament we must live with; in this view, then, every moment of every human life is a crisis, where we must constantly take responsibility for ourselves, own our wholeness and all the parts of the whole that constitutes who we are, and actively make the decision to be Good and to enhance the Good.  We have to be better than what we are.  Not only is that a matter of enhancing the Good all the time, but of diminishing the Bad all the while.

I wish it were easier.  But it’s not.  That’s just the nature of the Work, which is actual work.

On the Simplicity of Divine Prayer

Trying to get back into a routine is rough when you’ve been out of it for so long.  Between the job changes, house moves, seclusionary period of religious vows, and then a glut of partying and celebration at the end of 2017, I’m sure some of my readers can sympathize.  None of that excuses me, of course, from what I should be doing, but a trial’s a trial, after all.

One morning this week was the first in a long time I’ve made myself sit down, meditate, and recite some prayers.  Not many, given my lengthier commute than what I had back a few years ago, and given that I need to reconfigure my sleep schedule to allow for more awake time in the morning before work.  But, yanno, it was enough for this morning.  Admittedly, the prayers take some getting used to again, reciting them with the same focus, the same intent, the same clarity I recall I once had.  But then, any skill left unused for too long dulls faster than an overused knife, so it’ll just take practice and repetition and applying myself.  After a few days, I started to get that…silent Ring, that echo of the Hymns of Silence, back into my words.  So even if it doesn’t take too long to sharpen myself, it still takes time.

Briefly, I considered maybe if I wasn’t doing enough, if I wasn’t incorporating enough elements to give myself that proper atmosphere.  You know of what I speak, dear reader: that misty-shadowy-monochrome-occult,  evidently-powerful, clearly-mystical aesthetic that we all idealize and fetishize in our Work.  That perfectly-framed instagrammable/snapchattable/sharable #nofilter dark-room bones-and-herbs-strewn-about #tradcraft altar look that often sticks in our minds as both breathtaking and inspirational.  So, while in the middle of a prayer, holding my book in one hand, I reached for the incense with the other—

I stopped myself.  No, incense was not what I needed.  What I needed was prayer, and that alone.

A few weeks ago, while trying to find an appropriate time for a feast day of Hermes Trismegistus, I recalled a specific astrological alignment used for…something Hermetic.  After scouring through the Corpus Hermeticum and other Hermetic texts, I eventually stumbled upon what I was looking for in the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, but there was another bit of text that, although unrelated to what I was looking for, stuck out to me and reminded me of the simplicity called for in spiritual works, especially that of prayer.

From the Asclepius (chapter XLI; Copenhaver translation, p92):

As they left the sanctuary, they began praying to God and turning to the south (for when someone wants to entreat God at sunset, he should direct his gaze to that quarter, and likewise at sunrise towards the direction they call East), and they were already saying their prayer when in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to God?”

When Trismegistus heard him, he was disturbed and said: “A bad omen, Asclepius, very bad.  To burn incense and such stuff when you entreat God smacks of sacrilege.  For he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are.  Rather, let us worship him by giving thanks, for God finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.”

Let me unpack this by means of a parallel lesson I learned back in high school.  Say you’re the subject of a king, and the king is coming to your village to pay a visit and hold court.  All the local lords and nobles are coming, and all the subjects (high- or lowborn) are expected to present something to the king.  What they present are not gifts; gifts, after all, are seen as a kind of favorable charity, but how could a subject give a gift to his king?  The king already has a right to whatever his subjects own; a gift implies the bestowing of something that the receiver does not already have.  No, it is absurd for a subject to give his king a gift; what the subject offers is tribute.  Tribute is something given (yet not a gift) as well as an act of expressing admiration, gratitude, and respect to someone.  A craftsman giving a delicately crafted timepiece, a farmer giving the best of his year’s fruit, a herdsman giving the fattest of his personal flock, an artist giving a fully-decorated manuscript are all things that can be considered tribute in this context; these are acts or offerings of their own labor, their own work, their own hands with which they express thanks to their king, who enables them to do everything.

Of course, you can’t just offer any old thing as tribute.  No, it should be the finest example of what can you can produce, the most rarefied exemplar of skill and labor, and that which is suited to the tastes and needs of the king receiving tribute, as well as exemplifying the natural ownership of the king over his domain.  In other words, proper tribute shows our respect to those above us that we are grateful for their support, patronage, guidance, and protection in the means that they themselves strive to attain.

In this case, Hermes Trismegistus is suggesting that prayers of gratitude are tribute to God, and anything else is simply extra and, moreover, sullying the pure act of prayer.  After all, God is both transcendent and immanent of the world we live in; God already contains all things, all incenses and oils and blood-offerings and flowers.  Why should we bother with these things then?  Hermes would claim that to offer incense in prayer to God would be like offering fish to the ocean, or like giving a king a tributary offering of cattle, including all the shit and piss and vomit they make.  It’s not that these things are unhelpful or without use to us, but they are of little worth to a king, and are so beneath him as to be offensive.  Hermes says that there is nothing physical we could offer to God, because everything physical is already part and parcel to him.

If we shouldn’t offer physical things to God, then what should we offer?  Hermes says simply: “let us worship him by giving thanks, for God finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense”.  Just as subjects to a king offer tribute to express their gratitude towards and to show their abilities fostered by their protecting lord, we offer prayer of gratitude with our intellect and own internal divinity to show God, who gave humanity its intelligible nature by means of the Logos, our respect and thanks to him.  We recognize our place and nature in the world, a unique intersection between the purely physical universe and the purely spiritual cosmos, and we remember our divine origins in God’s own being; we express thanks and gratitude, not to appease or placate God’s wrath, but to grow closer to him and his domain so as to rise above mere matter.

That’s another reason why Hermes abhors the use of incense in prayer to God.  If we’re to ascend above this mortal coil so as to retake our divine essence and birthright, then why should we let those very same mortal, physical, doomed things continue to hold us down?  As Hermes and Poemander say in the very first book of the Corpus Hermeticum (book I, chapters 20—21; Salaman translation, pp21—22):

[Poemander] continued, “If you have remembered, tell me, why are those who are in death, worthy of death?

[Hermes] replied, “Because the grim darkness is the first origin of one’s own body, from which darkness arose the watery nature, from which darkness the body is formed in the sensory world of which death drinks.”

“You have observed correctly”, he said.  “But why does he who has remembered himself go to the Father, as the Word of God says?”

I replied, “Because the Father of all is constituted out of light and life, whence Man has been begotten.”

Poimandres then said, “The truth is: light and life is God and Father, whence Man is begotten.  If, therefore, you realize yourself as being from life and light, and that you have been made out of them, you will return to life.”

Death and ignorance of the divine are intrinsic to physical existence and physical things, and of the things that are not physical, the opposite is true.  Thus, to mix physical things in acts meant to focus on that which is purely divested of them (i.e. matters of God) introduces a measure of death and ignorance into them.  Thus, not only is it sufficient to simply pray to God, but anything more taints such a pure act.

So, no.  I didn’t need to light incense to pray.  I never have, and I never will.  Such prayer to God, performed with the full intent of prayer, is a complete and sufficient act unto itself that no addition could ever make more or better than my present, attentive, intentive, and intelligible Speech saying the divine Words.

Now, I will qualify this: there are times when incenses, oils, tools, and other physical materia matter for spiritual works or sacrifices to the gods, but note the context of difference here.  With offerings to the theoi, for instance, it is proper to offer wine, olive oil, incense, and burnt offerings; they find these things pleasing, and to an extent they are either part of this world or part of the cosmos close to us where these things are useful and appreciated.  Magical ceremonies involving the planets, them being physical-spiritual forces in our world, make use of colors and metals and incenses and herbs and whatnot to make their presence stronger here on Earth.  But when we talk about prayer to God, who is completely above all and encapsulates all within himself?  It’s a different set of rules and contexts, where there is nothing physical to do or appreciated, and the inclusion of physical things only acts as a distraction and delay.  In a sense, it’s highly parallel to what the Buddha taught about meditation: you don’t need incenses or bells or Lululemon pants or overpriced crystals or ridiculously over-engineered sitting cushions.  All you need is meditation, nothing more; nothing else will help you meditate than simply meditating.  In the same vein, Hermes Trismegistus teaches in the Asclepius that nothing else will help with praying to God than simply praying to God.

And, to finish that off, what was the prayer that Hermes Trismegistus offered after his rebuke to Asclepius?  This, which serves as an example of the type of intellectual reflection and deep gratitude Hermes Trismegistus propounded:

We thank you, supreme and most high God, by whose grace alone we have attained the light of your knowledge; holy Name that must be honored, the one Name by which our ancestral faith blesses God alone, we thank you who deign to grant to all a father’s fidelity, reverence, and love, along with any power that is sweeter, by giving us the gift of consciousness, reason, and understanding:
consciousness, that we may know you;
reason, by which we may seek you in our dim suppositions;
knowledge, by which we may rejoice in knowing you.

And we who are saved by your power do indeed rejoice because you have shown yourself to us wholly.  We rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body.  For this is mankind’s only means of giving thanks: knowledge of your majesty.

We have known you, the vast light perceived only by reason.
We have understood you, true life of life, the womb pregnant with all coming-to-be.
We have known you, who persist eternally by conceiving all coming-to-be in its perfect fullness.

Worshiping with this entire prayer the good of your goodness, we ask only this: that you wish us to persist in the love of your knowledge and that we never be cut off from such a life as this.

With such hopes and such prayers, let us now turn to putting it to practice with dedication.

The Nature of Trust of a Tool

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, “Elissa” by the Crüxshadows, has a particularly poignant bridge towards the end:

Everyone has a purpose
Hidden within our lives
Something we were meant to do
Or feel before we die

It’s not particularly hard to interpret this in a Hermetic or other occult sense, if you know anything about True Will or, said another way, divine destiny.  Everyone is, in some sense, a tool of the Divine or of the Almighty.  Everyone has something that we Chose and Want to accomplish in this world we find ourselves born in, something that only we can properly accomplish.  It’s not just anything, but a particular something that is the only Thing, the only Point or Cause, of our being incarnated here.  Everything we do in our lives is either essential development and build-up to attaining and maintaining that Thing, or nonessential window-dressing that can add flavor (either sweetness or bitterness) to that goal.  So long as we Work towards that Thing, no matter how roundabout or directly, we’re doing what we need to do; we might make it easier or harder for ourselves in the process, and we may very well get waylaid or misled on our paths, but the point still stands that there is a Thing that we must Do, and all that we Work towards is in service of that Thing.

I’ve brought up the idea before that, if we envision the whole grand scheme of things, the Cosmos, as a giant machine, then everyone is a gear in that machine.  So long as we keep on doing what we need to do, every part works in harmony with every other part, and the machine works well.  If even one part, however, gets out of sync or decides to revolt, then much of the rest of the system we find ourselves in can malfunction or break down, and other parts have to accommodate the malfunction until things get into proper working order again.  (This is why life isn’t perfect, I suppose.)  Kalagni of Blue Flame Magick once described this to me (in a discussion on True Will) as how a solar system works: the planets don’t need to think or plan or consciously strive towards orbiting the Sun, they just do it naturally as an expression of their selves and their purpose.  But imagine, dear reader, if a rogue planet suddenly whipped itself into our solar system, or worse, imagine if one of our own planets suddenly got a wild hare up its axis of rotation and jumped out of its orbit.  What happens?  The other planets get knocked out of their own orbits, potentially colliding with other planets or celestial bodies, and the whole system gets out of whack until it finds a new equilibrium to settle down in.  There’s no guarantee that this equilibrium will be equivalent to the previous one, or that the solar system as a whole will survive such an accident, but hey, shit happens.  The Cosmos will do what it needs to do in order to work out its own problems, and its our job to make sure that we do our own Work accordingly to handle our Will, regardless of what the vicissitudes of fate throw at us.

Rather than just thinking of ourselves as gears in a machine, however, consider this from another perspective: that we are tools in the hands of God.  Same idea, just a slightly different expression, but now we pick up other and different concerns.  Every tool is built so as to fix a particular problem: a hammer pushes things in, a crowbar gets things out, tape holds things together quickly but temporarily, glue holds things together over time but more permanently, and so forth.  Every tool has one particular job that it does well; it’s rare to find a true multipurpose tool, since a tool that tries to do many things equally well doesn’t do any particularly thing exceptionally well, especially when compared to a true single-purpose tool.  We each have a particular purpose, and we are the tool built to Work towards that purpose.  Finding what that purpose is (specifically or generally) can not only tell us what we need to do, but also tell us more about ourselves, what we were meant to do, and why we came into the world to do it.  A sword does not hammer in nails, and trying to use a sword as a hammer can result in chipped blades, bent nails, and an overall terrible job of doing something that probably was meant for someone else.

But there’s more to this metaphor of us being made as cosmic tools.  Tools must be properly maintained in order to do their job, either well or even passably.  Consider the sword (and for this, I suggest taking a short detour and reading Meti’s Sword Manual, a text written in service of my new favorite webcomic, Kill Six Billion Demons, which I think every occultist today should read and follow because it’s wonderful).  A sword must be kept oiled so as to prevent rust, out of extreme heat so that it does not warp, and sharpened so that it can actually cut; a sword is made for cutting, and so everything the sword does must be in service of that purpose, and the sword must be kept in a good condition so as to be able to accomplish that purpose.  Further, even when a sword is used to cut, it must be used in a proper way: trying to cut a hardwood tree or a stone will often yield a nicked, chipped, or broken blade, leaving it in a worse condition than it was before due to improper use; another tool for cutting of that specific type, such as an axe or a chisel, would be better, even though they all “cut” in some sense.  It is a combination of knowing both how to maintain a tool before it is used and when to use a tool that preserves the tool for when it is truly needed to do its job well.

Moreover, all a sword does is cut; it is a tool for cutting, and it does so without thought, leaving thought to the wielder of the sword.  A sword does not second-guess itself, and a sword does not make half-cuts or mock-cuts.  A sword cuts, just as its wielder intends for it to.  In the hands of a skilled swordsman, a sword can cut God; in the hands of an untrained one, a sword will cut everything except the intended target, usually the wielder himself.  The sword does not particularly care, because the sword’s purpose is not to plan how to cut, just to cut.  Happily, when we talk about Divinity, we can generally assume that God and the gods are Platonically capital-G Good, and therefore know what is Good and True, and therefore, as tools in their hands, we can have faith that they will not use us when we are not meant to be used.  It’s when we try to act on our own that we need to either have trust in ourselves to do what is right when it is right, or to abandon the situation entirely and avoid what should be avoided.  It’s when we take matters into our own hands, or leave ourselves to be put into the hands of anything less than Divinity, that we risk putting ourselves in harm’s way more than is absolutely necessary, and risk coming out all the worse for it.

How much trust do you put in yourself to know what is proper for you to do?  How can you trust yourself to do what is right and proper for you when the moment is called for?

I’ve been mulling over these problems over the past few days, and…well, it hasn’t been the most pleasant of self-conversations.  I admit that I enjoy dealing in absolutes as much as the next ceremonial magician (or, for that matter, human being with a finite consciousness that likes using rubrics and models of reality qua reality), and I would like to say that I trust myself to do what is right in all circumstances, that I am trustworthy to all.  To do so, however, would be a lie, and I can feel it singeing my heart whenever I even try to complete the thought of saying it.  I, myself, have done a number of regrettable, unfortunate, downright shitty things that I would like to say that I’ve put behind me, that I’ve learned from, that I’ve become better than.  And…the truth is, I haven’t.  I still beat myself up for some of the things I’ve done and said, as much as I try to forgive myself.  I still worry about slipping up again, about making the same mistakes, about committing the same crimes in the future and hurting those whom I hold dear, or myself, or my opportunities and chances for making myself better.  I fear that I’m going to be no better than I always have been, making the same excuses for the same bullshit that I would pull over and over again even given half a chance at it, even though I know better from my own experience that I should never have done them even once.

So, no, I can’t say that I trust myself as a rule, or that I trust myself in all situations to do what’s right in all cases where it’s called for.  I don’t see myself as trustworthy, and honestly, considering why others might consider me trustworthy makes me feel like an awful liar who’s mislead anyone and everyone who’s even cast an eye towards me.  And yet, I know that I have no immediate reason or way to betray these people, nor do I want to.  With even a little introspection, I know what can mislead me into a bad course of action, and what my triggers and temptations are, and I know that within a certain set of parameters, there’s neither any reason nor way to betray them, so I can be trusted, at least a little bit.  I’ve come to appreciate the saying “I trust them as far as I can throw them” in a more nuanced light; within a certain range of expectations and situations, I can be trustworthy, and I can claim to properly and rightfully hold trust, even for myself without that heart-singe, up to a point.  It’s beyond that point that I worry, because I know that if I were to go beyond such a point where it’s not just possible but probable for me to slip up, it’d be more difficult (not impossible!) to come out the other end without erring.

I can’t say that I absolutely trust myself, but I can say that I trust myself up to a point.  For most people, with whom my interactions are limited to a particular sphere of life or action, the points at which I can’t be trusted fall so far out of that sphere that there’s no need to consider me to be anything but trustworthy.  For others, though, the story changes.  I can be trusted with qualifications, and though I’d like to say I’m trustworthy without them, I can’t honestly say that.

While I accept that—mostly, and without the burn of telling a lie to myself—I’m not satisfied with it.  Far from it; while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I hate myself for not being trustworthy across all cases and situations, I’m certainly not pleased with myself for it, and I want to make myself better.  I want to be able to do my Work without the distractions of regret, fear, worry, self-loathing, and that calls for either papering over the root cause and hoping it never rears its ugly head again (hah!), or actually doing the Work to improve myself to make my overall Work better without such distraction, as much as I am able.  As a sword, I must make sure that I am in the right condition to do my Work, and only limit myself to the range of Work that I am able to do in the form and condition I’m in; more than that, I must hone, tune, and strengthen myself to be able to push my limits, within which I am comfortable enough to work without distraction, and understand the areas into which I push my boundaries and limits.  If I am trustworthy only up to a point, by my own estimation, I need to push that point further so that I can become more trustworthy, and strive to not simply strut past it without care and end up wrecking myself or, worse, those around me.

Self-knowledge, either given to one by oracle or discovered through one’s own life, can hurt in the process of obtaining it.  But they who know more about themselves know how to live differently and better than if they had no such knowledge.  I know the situations in which I risk my own well-being, happiness, and success, and I stride into them at my own peril.  Dealing in absolutes as I do, the nebulous and unpredictable “being at risk of erring and not knowing how I would act” is tantamount to the definite “I will err”, and it’s safer to simply stay out of situations that I’ve been warned away from.  Should the case arise that I find myself in such a situation, it’d behoove me to find my way back out at my earliest convenience while keeping up my guard.  Still, I don’t want to be limited to this; even if the nature of my being is always to be temped by a particular set of things, there’s nothing saying I can’t strengthen myself to resist them all the more while also building myself up to avoid them at the same time.

A tool, in order to accomplish its purpose, must be in the right condition for it to be used; it must be built, maintained, and strengthened well, and having done so, it will serve a lifetime (or more) of wonders.  But a tool is only as useful as the skill of the one who wields it.  When we take ourselves into our own hands, regardless of whether that’s proper and right for us to do so, we must be sure to know how to condition the tool of our Selves as well as the limitations of use thereof, while always striving to increase our skill and reach of using the tool.  There may be upper limits to what we can accomplish, both as tool and wielder, but so long as we always strive to reach them, we’re doing all the Work we can in service of our Will.

Divination Methods and Programming Languages

A few years back, I made a post about a theory of divination, where methods of divination can range from the purely intuitive (e.g. clairvoyance) to the purely technical (e.g. meteorological forecasting as seen on the Weather Channel).  Most forms of divination fall somewhere in-between, that combine some aspect of intuition with some aspect of technique or technology (e.g. Tarot, runes, geomancy).  Anyway, in that post, I brought up a few points that I think all people involved in divination should bear in mind, but also a bit about how divination methods are like programming languages.  Being educated as a computer scientist and laboring as a software engineer, I’m prone to using metaphors about the things I’m most knowledgeable in, but I think it can be expanded about how I view divination methods and what they can overall achieve for us.

So, how are methods of divination like programming languages?  Well, what is a programming language?  It’s a system of symbols and a grammar that are used as input to a computer to make it do something.  Punching in numbers and symbols into a calculator, for instance, can be considered a very simple form of programming language: you tell the computer to add these two numbers, divided by this other number, save it to memory, start a new calculation, involve the value stored in memory, and display the output.  Most programming languages (PLs, for short) are much more complicated than this, but the idea is the same: you’re giving the computer a set of instructions that maybe take some input, do something, and maybe give some output.  Computers of any and all kinds exist to interpret some sort of PL, whether it’s just pure binary telling it to turn on or off some set of flashing lights, or whether it’s something elaborate and arcane to simulate intelligence; computers are essentially machines that take in PLs to do other things.  The study of PLs is, in effect, the study of cause and effect: tell the computer to do something, and the computer will do exactly that.  If the computer fails to do the thing, then either the commands given were incorrect (the computer understood them but you didn’t give it the right commands) or invalid (the computer couldn’t understand what you told it to do).

In computer science, there’s a thing called Turing completeness.  If we consider an idealized abstract computer stripped down to its most basic parts (a universal Turing machine), it can compute anything that is, well, computable; by definition, a universal Turing machine can simulate any computable algorithm, any computable programming language, and any computer.  Any computer you see or interact with, including your smartphone or laptop or video game console, is a concrete implementation of a Turing machine.  Turing completeness is a property that applies to computers and, by extension, PLs: if a concrete computer or programming language (let’s call it A) can simulate a universal Turing machine, then because a universal Turing machine can simulate any other type of computation or computation method , then the computer/programming language A can simulate any other computer/programming language.  This is called Turing completeness.

What this boils down to is saying that any Turing-complete programming language can do anything that any other Turing-complete language can do: C is functionally equivalent to ML, which is functionally equivalent to Lua, which is functionally equivalent to lambda calculus.  What this does not say, however, is that any given Turing-complete PL is as easy to use as any other Turing-complete PL.  Thus, what is easy to do in C is problematic in Lisp, which might be outright unwieldy and frightening in some other language.  It may not be impossible, just different; each PL is a different tool, and different tools are good for different ends.  It is totally possible to fix pipe plumbing issues with a hammer, but it’s easier with a wrench; it’s totally possible to just build a house with a wrench, but it’s easier with a hammer.

This is what brings me to divination methods.  I claim that, barring the direct influences of gods or cultural notions thereof, any divination method can answer the same questions that any other divination method can.  Call it a divinatory Turing-completeness if you will; if a divination method can account for and describe some set of circumstances, situations, events, and results, then other divination methods can, as well.  This is why you can go to a geomancer, a Tarot reader, a bone reader, a clairvoyant, or other types of readers and still walk away satisfied with good information despite the radical differences in style and method.  That said, each method is better at different types of queries or better at different types of answer deliveries than others.  Geomancy, for instance, excels at binary queries (“yes” or “no”), while Tarot is good for descriptions and feelings.  Geomancy answers exactly the question you ask, while Tarot answers the question you should be asking.  Geomancy gives you the answer up front and the details later, while Tarot gives you the details first and leaves the overall answer to be judged from them.  I’m not trying to shill for geomancy, I’m just giving examples of how geomancy does divination differently than Tarot; after all, I can answer with geomancy anything a Tarot reader can, but I may phrase certain queries differently, or develop an answer differently.  The overall result is the same, when all is said and done.

However, this metaphor of divination methods and PLs can show other things, too.  A geomancy student of mine recently came to me with an interesting question about a detail of a technique that I don’t personally use, but is documented in an old manuscript.  I don’t put any faith in that technique, so I won’t describe it here, but he wanted to know why I didn’t use it, and how we might find out more about it.  He asked me whether I’ve ever asked geomancy about itself before, like to do a reading to confirm or deny certain techniques.  I…honestly can’t see the point of doing so, but to explain why, it’s time to go back to computer science.

In addition to Turing completeness, there’s this other notion in mathematics that applies to computer science and PLs called Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.  It’s a little heady and obtuse, but here’s the gist: say you have some system of describing information, like arithmetic or physics.  This system has a logic that allows certain things to be proved true (“if P, then Q; P, therefore Q”), and can disprove things that are false (“if P, then Q; P, therefore not Q”).  Given any such system, you might want it to be the best possible system that can prove everything that is true while simultaneously disproving anything that is false.  However, there’s an issue with that: you can either have consistency or completeness, but not both.

  • Consistency is showing that your logic is always sound; you never end up proving something that is false.  Thus, we can only prove true things.  However, this is too restrictive; if you have perfect consistency, you end up with things that are true that you cannot prove.  Your logic, if consistent, can never be complete.
  • Completeness is showing that your logic is always full; you always end up proving everything that is true can be proved true.  The problem with this, however, is that it’s too permissive; sure, everything that is true can be proved true, but there are also things that are false that end up being proved even though they’re contradictions.  Your logic, if complete, can never be consistent.

When it comes to logical systems, of which there are many, we tend to strive for consistency over completeness.  While we’d love a system where everything that could be true is shown as true, we also lose faith in it if we have no means to differentiate the true stuff from the false stuff.  Thus, we sacrifice the totality of completeness in favor of the rigor of consistency.  After all, if such a system were inconsistent, you’d never be sure if 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 != 3, a computer would work one second or start an AI uprising the next, or whether browsing your favorite porn site would actually give you porn or videocall your mother on Skype.  Instead, with a consistent system, we can rest assured that 2 + 2 can never equal 3, that a computer will behave exactly as told, and that porn websites will only give you porn and not an awkward conversation with your mom.  However, the cost to this is that I have this thing that is true, but it can’t be proven to be true using that system you like.  Unfortunate, but we can make do.

As it turns out, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem applies to any system described in terms of itself; you cannot prove (which is a stronger, logical thing to do than simply giving examples) that a given computer, PL, or system of mathematics is consistent by using that selfsame system.  If you attempt to do so and end up with such a proof, you end up proving a contradiction; thus, your system of logic has an inconsistency within that system of logic.  In order to prove something on the system itself, then, you need something more expressive than that system itself.  For instance, to describe actions, you need sounds; in order to describe sounds, you need language, and in order to describe language, you need thought.  Each of these is less expressive than the next, and while you can describe things of less expressiveness, you cannot describe it in terms of itself.  So, if I have this thing that is true and you can’t prove it to be true using that system you like, then you need something more powerful than that system you like.

Okay, that’s enough heady stuff.  How does this apply to divination methods, again?  My student wanted to know why I didn’t ask geomancy about itself; the answer is that geomancy can’t answer about itself in terms of itself.  Like programming languages’ problem from Gödel, I don’t think a system of knowledge—any system, whether it’s Peano arithmetic or lambda calculus or geomancy—can accurately answer questions about its own internal mechanism and algorithms.  And, moreover, because whatever is divinable by one divination method is divinable by any of them, and whatever is not divinable by one isn’t divinable by any of them, if we can’t ask about how methods of divination work by means of a particular divination method (Tarot with Tarot, geomancy with geomancy, Tarot with geomancy, geomancy with Tarot), the question about how divinatory methods work cannot be divined.

So how do you learn more about techniques for a divination method?  Well, as above, if you have a particular system of knowledge and you want to describe it, you need something more powerful than that system.  What’s more powerful than, say, geomancy?  Something more inclusive and expressive than geomancy; like, say, human language.  If you have a question about geomantic techniques, you can’t really go to geomancy to ask about it; you go to a teacher, a mentor, an ancestor, a discussion group to figure it out by means of logic, rationality, and “looking out above” the system itself.  You have to inspect the system from the outside in order to see how it works inside, and generally, we need something to show us where to look.  That something is usually someone.

Programming languages are not, of course, divination methods.  Yes, dear reader who happens to know more about mathematics and the philosophy thereof than I do, I know I’m uncomfortably mixing different types of concepts in this post; divination methods are not instructions, nor are programming languages able to predict the future, barring some new innovation in quantum computing.  The point stands, and the concepts introduced in this post hold well and are generalizable enough for my ends here.  There are enough parallels between the two that give me a working theory of how divination works, and also of the limits of divination.  Just as with the relationship between regular expressions and context-free grammars, where the latter is strictly more expressive and powerful than the former, we need something more expressive and powerful than a divination system to learn how to divine with it.  Humans, for instance, fill that role quite nicely; all divination can do is “simulate” human situations, but it cannot simulate every possible situation uniquely.  There are human situations that cannot be accurately simulated by divination.  Divination, too, is inherently incomplete if we want to place certain faith in our techniques; if we allow, on the other hand, for divination to be complete, then we have to scrap the techniques which then become inconsistent and be more intuitive instead.  In that case, sure, you might be able to get insight on techniques, but it’s not by means of the techniques of the divination system itself; you sidestepped that matter completely.