Thursday, September 22, 2016

Foundations of Magical Practice: Meditation

Before we get into the second element of basic magical training—if you will, the second foot of the bubbling three-footed cauldron the novice operative mage, like little Gwion, must keep stirring—a brief glance back at an earlier subject is in order. Regular readers will recall a post in April about the emergence of a witch hunt in the Neopagan scene. I’m pleased to say that the post came to the attention of the wannabe witch hunter, Rhyd Wildermuth, who posted an entertaining screed insisting that it was absurd to talk about witch hunts when he hadn’t yet managed to get anyone burned at the stake.

He needs to work on his sense of timing, though.  His screed appeared while one of his allies had a rant on the Neopagan web calling for a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence—that is to say, a witch hunt—against people in the Pagan community whose politics she didn’t like. (It’s been taken down and put back up at least once already, but you can find a screen capture here.) Connoisseurs of historical ignorance will find much to ponder in Wildermuth’s risible claim that violence is only ever committed by leadership figures against the masses, never the other way around.  Admittedly, if you’re a demagogue trying to whip up mob violence against people you hate, it’s probably a good plan to go around insisting that mob violence doesn’t exist; given the abysmal state of education these days, you might even be able to get away with it.

In the meantime, as this sorry business lurches toward its destiny and we wait to see whether it will drag the entire mainstream Neopagan scene down with it, there are more interesting things to talk about.  One of them, as noted above, is the role of meditation in magical training.

(Please note, before we proceed, that all the caveats introduced in last month’s post apply to this one as well. The recommendations I’m making here aren’t  meant as quasi-divine commandments that apply to every conceivable system of magic, and anyone who treats them as such will be beaten with a pterodactyl’s colon. They’re the advice of one longtime practitioner of magic to those who are considering taking up a specific form of magic—the ceremonial high magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and certain of its offshoots—and don’t happen to have a qualified teacher handy. Thank you, and we now return to our regularly scheduled Well of Galabes post.)

There are, as it happens, two common misconceptions about meditation that are best gotten out of the way first, and both of them can be overturned neatly enough by a glance at the word “meditation” itself. The first misconception is that meditation is something foreign, something “Eastern” (whatever that word means on a round planet), invented and practiced by strange people in strange robes far away. The second is that meditation, by definition, is about turning off your thinking mind.

So let’s take a look at the word. “Meditation” isn’t borrowed from Sanskrit, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, or whatever the imaginary language was called that Madame Blavatsky claimed she was translating out of when she made up The Book of Dzyan. It’s a perfectly ordinary English word and, like about forty per cent of English vocabulary, comes originally from Latin. This may suggest to you that Latin-speaking people in the Middle Ages and English-speaking people thereafter knew what meditation is—and if that suggestion has indeed occurred to you, dear reader, you’re quite correct.

In English, though, this word “meditation” only got the meaning of mind-emptying exercises quite recently. You can see this by considering other words in which it’s an element. When we say that a crime was premeditated, for example, that doesn’t mean that the perp spent half an hour in lotus posture chanting a mantra before he did the crime. It means, quite the contrary, that he thought it through in advance. Notice that premeditation isn’t just thinking, it’s focused, purposive thinking.

That’s what meditation has traditionally been in occultism: focused, purposive thinking. That’s actually a tolerably common approach to meditation in Asian spiritual traditions, for that matter; it’s just that the traditions that have been most enthusiastically imported to Europe and America since the latter years of the nineteenth century have been the ones that don’t use that approach. In some Buddhist traditions, for example, it’s quite common to meditate on the four noble truths or the twelve stages of dependent origination, thinking them through, understanding every detail of them, applying them to one’s own experience, and thus learning to think like the Buddha. It’s just that those traditions aren’t the ones that caught on big here in America.

What’s more, this sort of meditation—discursive meditation, to give it its proper name—used to be standard practice in Christian churches. Though I originally encountered it by way of the very sparse instruction given in the knowledge lectures of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, I learned a great deal more from the writings of Joseph King, who was an Anglican bishop in the seventeenth century and whose earnest and detailed books on the subject, at a time when the internet didn’t exist yet, could be read on microfilm in the Wing collection of early English printed books in the basement of the University of Washington library. It was a common habit from the Middle Ages straight through until roughly the First World War; books of themes for meditation were popular and widely available once the printing press was invented; so was another kind of book, to be discussed a bit later, which hasn’t usually been recognized as a resource for meditation.

Let’s go into a little more detail at this point. To get the best results, discursive meditation requires the same sort of preliminaries that the more familiar forms of meditation do. The standard advice among old-fashioned occultists was to sit in a chair with your spine comfortably straight, not leaning against the back; your feet are flat on the floor; your legs are parallel to each other, and bent at a right angle; your hands rest on your thighs close to your knees, and your elbows are at your sides. Every muscle you don’t need to use to stay upright is as relaxed as you can get it. Having assumed the position and deliberately relaxed the muscles just mentioned, you breathe slowly and deeply for several minutes, paying attention to the inflow and outflow of the breath, and turn your mind away from every topic of thought except the theme of your meditation.

The theme? That’s the thing you’re going to be exploring with the focused, purposive thinking we talked about earlier. We’ll get to the choosing of themes in a bit. Whatever the theme is, you hold it before your mind for a while, simply being aware of it; if it’s a bit of text, you might repeat it silently to yourself, while if it’s a visual image you might visualize it as though it’s standing in front of you, and so on. You then think about it in a general way for a little while, find some aspect of it that interests you, and follow out the train of thought all the way to its end. You don’t let your thoughts wander onto other subjects. If, as happens all the time in the early stages of training, your thoughts get away from you, go grab them by the ears and bring them back to the theme. Repeat as necessary. When you’ve gotten all you can out of the train of thought you were following, take a few deep breaths and then shake your muscles to loosen them; that finishes the meditation.

Now let’s talk about themes. You choose your theme before you meditate—in fact, in some occult schools it’s standard practice to choose the theme for each day’s meditation the night before, and go to sleep while turning it over in your mind, so that when you start your meditation first thing in the morning, the theme’s been enriched with all the considerable ingenuity of your subconscious mind. Anything can be a theme for meditation, and what you choose will depend on your personal beliefs and the occult or religious tradition that you’re studying.

In the writings of Bishop Joseph King, for example, verses from the Bible were the automatic go-to default option for meditation themes. (The numbered verses of the Bible are in fact very nicely sized for use as themes. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—a Christian occultist who can’t get at least one good solid session of discursive meditation out of that, if not considerably more, simply isn’t trying.) People who come to discursive meditation from other religious backgrounds can choose texts better suited to their own interests, and some magical texts are specifically set up for this practice. Those readers who wonder why Dion Fortune’s famous textbook The Mystical Qabalah is divided into numbered paragraphs can draw their own conclusions.

Another approach, very common back in the day, was to have students read a chapter of a textbook or a lesson from a correspondence course once a week, and while reading it, look for “seed thoughts”—short passages, from a phrase to a sentence in length, that sum up a detail of magical teaching that catches the student’s attention. Each student would write down seven seed thoughts from the assigned reading, and use those for the themes for the next seven days’ meditation sessions. It’s an effective approach, and it has the advantage that when you’ve finished the book or the correspondence course, you can turn around and go through it again. I promise you that if the material’s any good, you’ll find a completely different set of seed thoughts the second time around.

Texts, though, aren’t the only game in town, not by a long shot. Those of my readers who’ve had any exposure to traditional occultism will know already that there’s quite the plethora of odd symbolic emblems and imagery to be found there. From the enigmatic pictures on the 22 Tarot trumps through the ornate allegorical emblems of the old alchemical literature to the tracing boards used by initiatory orders, there’s a lot of puzzling imagery out there. Various people have explained those in various ways, but even in modern occult literature, you have to look long and hard to find a discussion of the practical application these things used to have, which is as themes for meditation.

It’s in dealing with these images, and with the elaborate symbolic narratives that so often accompany them, that discursive meditation really comes into its own. Most of the older occult schools encoded much, most, or all of their teaching in these emblems and narratives, and then handed them to the student to unpack through discursive meditation. To use a contemporary metaphor, these things are zip files from which pages and pages of documents can be extracted, and the extraction program—yep, that would be discursive meditation. That was partly a security measure and partly a method of training.

If you pick up one of the more ornate alchemical texts—the Book of Lambspring, the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, the Trinosophia of the Comte de St.-Germain, Fulcanelli’s La Mystere des Cathedrales, or what have you—and try to make any kind of sense of it without discursive meditation, your choice of destination is limited to the Slough of Despond on the one hand and La-La Land on the other.  Get a good basic knowledge of alchemical thought by way of the less cryptic texts, and then go through your chosen book one detail at a time using discursive meditation, and doors to very interesting places start opening.

That brings us to the third source of themes for discursive meditation in the occult traditions, which is initiatory ritual. In a ritual of initiation—a subject we’ll be covering in much more detail down the road a bit—the candidate goes through what amounts to a symbolic narrative, in which words, emblems, gestures, and a variety of other things are woven together in much the same way as incidents in one of the alchemical tales just mentioned. When it works the way it’s supposed to, initiation furthers the awakening of previously inaccessible states and capacities of consciousness—but these days, it very often doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, and the reason behind that is the collective amnesia that swallowed the practice of discursive meditation in the early part of the twentieth century.

In earlier times, before the term “meditation” got redefined as mind-emptying, it was standard for those who had been through an initiation ritual to go over it in meditation, one detail at a time. That helped get the effects of the initiation solidly fixed in the initiate’s awareness, and it also gave him or her a head start on learning the ritual to as to be able to help confer it on others. There were other things done in occult schools to help make the effects of initiation stick, and some of them are still in use today, but discursive meditation used to be an important part of the initiatory toolkit. The same approach works just as well, by the way, when applied to the sacramental rituals of the religion of your choice.

Finally, there’s another important item in the traditional occultist’s toolkit that needs regular doses of discursive meditation to keep it from running off the rails. It has a variety of names: the Golden Dawn traditions call it “scrying in the spirit vision,” for example, while Carl Jung and his followers call it “active imagination.” (One of these days I’m going to have to do a post about the awkward fact that Jung wasn’t a psychologist who dabbled in occultism, but rather an occultist—an extremely learned and competent one—who successfully managed to pass off a system of occult philosophy and practice as a school of psychology; still, that’s a topic for another day.) Under any name, it’s the use of the trained imagination as an instrument of perception.

The very simplest version of scrying in the spirit vision is an exercise most people who’ve dabbled in occultism have done at least once. You take a symbolic image—a Tarot trump, let’s say—and imagine it expanding, until the frame becomes a doorway and the scene it shows becomes three-dimensional. You then imagine yourself walking through the doorway and having a conversation with the person or people on the other side. Because we know more than we consciously realize, this sort of exercise routinely turns up insights the conscious mind can’t get at in other ways; furthermore, with regular practice, what starts out as a simple daydream evolves into an intensely experienced journey through vivid dreamscapes packed with unexpected meaning and power.

There are, of course, downsides. The most common, as Israel Regardie liked to point out, is that this sort of work can very easily degenerate into a kind of astral tourism in which junketing around in the spirit vision becomes an end in itself rather than a tool for the attainment of knowledge about the self and the universe. Rarer though far more problematic is what happens when the scryer forgets that the things perceived by the trained imagination are symbols of inner realities rather than realities in their own right, and takes the symbolic experienced literally.

That’s problematic enough by itself—it usually means the end of any significant magical development—but when you mix in the very common desire to feel important, the results in extreme cases can range from the founding of a new religious cult demanding absolute faith in the visions of the self-proclaimed prophet, on the one hand, to a rapid descent into acute schizophrenia on the other. More common, if less colorful, is the sort of pseudospiritual gossip that fills so many well-meant tomes, in which bits of visionary experience with obvious symbolic meaning get turned into chatter.

Here’s an example. A long time ago, when dinosaurs strode the earth, I used to get away from the tawdry realities of a suburban adolescence by taking classes on occult subjects in some of the hip neighborhoods of Seattle. At one of these, the speaker earnestly informed us all that Jesus had traveled to Britain during the years not discussed in the New Testament, and married a Druid princess. Her evidence was of course some mode of inner experience—I honestly don’t recall whether she got that from a channeled entity, saw it while scrying, or what have you—and since there were at that point in the late 1970s, by a conservative estimate, eleven godzillion minor mystics in North America who all had their own visionary accounts of where Jesus spent those undocumented years, and each of these accounts contradicted all the others, I smiled and nodded and suppressed an impulse to roll my eyes.

Look at that as a symbol, though, and it stops being a bit of pseudohistorical gossip and turns into something meaningful. It may have been meaningful on a personal level—the vision may have been trying to tell her that she needed both the values symbolized by Christ and those symbolized by the notion of a Druid princess, or it may have been trying to tell her that she needed to balance and harmonize worship of Christ with reverence for the elemental powers. It may also have been meaningful on a transpersonal level—the vision may have been suggesting that modern Christianity needs to face up to the values that the symbol of marriage to a Druid princess represents, such as reverence for nature and a less prudish sense of the relationship of masculine and feminine principles. A few sessions of discursive meditation on the vision might well have told her how to make sense of the symbol, but since she apparently never tried that, we’ll never know.

Like ritual, finally, meditation is best done daily. The standard habit is to do your daily banishing ritual and then, in the space cleared and cleansed by the ritual, do your meditation. The ritual will take you five minutes or so, and fifteen minutes of meditation, including the initial relaxation and breathing, is enough to start with; that accounts for twenty minutes of the thirty minutes a day I mentioned earlier will be enough to make you a capable operative mage. We’ll get into the last ten minutes next month.


Discursive meditation is kind of a hobby horse of mine, as the above has probably demonstrated! The upside of that is that nearly every book of mine that discusses magical training at all has at least a brief discussion of discursive meditation, and most have much more. Readers who are interested in the classic Hermetic Golden Dawn system will find a good account of discursive mediation in my cowritten book Learning Ritual Magic; those who prefer the system of Druid practice associated with the Ancient Order of Druids in America will find a detailed discussion in my book The Druidry Handbook, while those who fancy the hybrid Druid/Golden Dawn system I mostly practice these days will find a similar discussion in The Celtic Golden Dawn.