This will be the first of four articles exploring different occult traditions. I will begin with the Thelema, which encompasses the largest number of eastern and western traditions brought together in a unique way. The founder of this tradition is Aleister Crowley - a controversial figure to be certain. Before you turn away from this article I would ask you to consider the following saying: do as I say, not as I do. He has written a great many works that allow us to study the world and ourselves. Even for a lowly student of the occult, such myself, there is a wealth of knowledge, understanding and wisdom to be gained. Not to mention many practical skills. I didn’t expect that from Thelema.
Two sentences are repeated very often throughout Crowley’s works.
“Do what though wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, which sounds very simple. It sounds like you can do whatever you want and that’s all there is to it. When properly understood this single sentence encapsulates the Thelemic concept of the True Will - representing a person’s purpose and path in life while being in harmony with the Universe.
“Love is the law, love under will”, completes the core concept of Thelema. When talking about Love it should understood that we are not limited to our modern day concept of romantic love. It would be easier to replace the word “love” with “care” - and then to further expand the word “care” into “care for others, as you would care for yourself.” Another way to understand Love in this context is to see it as a state of Higher Consciousness. Seen in this way Love becomes the foundation of the True Will. Love under Will, which means that care must underly and support every action that a person takes. Every act that a person takes must be performed with Love at its foundation, or the result will ultimately be chaos.
Just imagine that for a moment. It is this unity with the Universe that so many traditions attempt to illuminate. With these two sentences Crowley describes how each individual starts on their journey of discovery and understanding by seeking their own destiny. The work that they are meant to do - one lifetime at a time - to complete the True Will. To perform the True Will a person makes the decision to increasingly put aside their individual, ego-driven desires and surrender to the True Will. Instead of spending time on things that I would like to personally be doing, I willingly do the Great Work that is more important. To take actions against the True Will creates disharmony and obstacles.
Crowley was no friend to the great religions of the world, but there’s no denying that Thelema has religious aspects. Rituals incorporate the names of gods and goddesses from an ancient Egyptian religion, but Crowley described these deities as a “literary convenience”. Meaning that while the rituals use the names, the intent is more likely to be as a correspondence with ideas and concepts, rather than as subjects of worship. From the start a student is encouraged to learn the basics of Qabalistic correspondences, because Crowley writes in this language.
From the first steps Thelema feels very practical. Before even the first ritual the student is taught how to study and better themselves both mentally and physically. It takes a lot of concentration and effort to progress through the studies in Thelema, so one must be prepared for the work ahead. First the student is instructed to identify their own body’s daily needs, such as waking, sleeping, eating and drinking. After that the student is introduced to fundamental practices that they are expected to follow at all times.
For the next part I’m going to quote the Weiser Concise Guide to Aleister Crowley, because the book lays out the expectations of everything that is to follow in four clearly written sentences:
1) It is absolutely necessary that all experiments should be recorded in detail during, or immediately after, their performance.
2) It is highly important to note the physical and mental condition of the experimenter or experimenters.
3) The time and place of all experiments must be noted; also the state of the weather, and generally all conditions which might conceivably have any result upon the experiment either as adjuvants to or causes of the result, or as inhibiting it, or as sources of error.
4) The more scientific the record is, the better. Yet, the emotions should be noted, as being some of the conditions.
I found this kind of approach very different from the other traditions that I have encountered. It leads the student into a mindset that what they are about to do is not arcane in nature. Rather, the journey that they about to embark on is something wholly natural and is supposed to be repeatable through further experimentation.
Continuing with the practical, Thelema teaches how to hold a physical posture properly. If you have ever done office work then you know how taxing it is to the body. Even with modern ergonomics the human body is stressed by working at a desk with a keyboard, mouse and monitors for extended periods of time. Asana teaches how to hold the same physical position with muscles tensed up for extended periods of time. One position at a time, strengthening and honing the body in preparation for more challenging exercises. From personal experience I can say that these exercises come with significant physical discomfort and even pain, but as the body grows stronger the exercises become easier. The Asana exercises began with a proper sitting position and then continued on with various kneeling, standing and much more complex sitting positions. I’m man enough to confess that I am terrified of trying the standing exercises. Simply sitting still, with muscles tensed, for an hour is an incredibly demanding physical exercise. One step at a time.
Next come the breathing exercises - Pranayama. At first I was a little dubious about the practical applications of learning how to breathe in a rhythm that doesn’t feel very natural. The first exercise instructs the student to hold their forefinger against one side of the nose and to keep their mouth closed - thus allowing breathing only through a single nostril. Breathing is then performed in a rhythm of breathing in for 10 seconds, breathing out for 20 seconds and repeating. This is to be repeated for an entire hour, after which the student is instructed to change nostrils. Okay, sounds silly (and probably looked like it too), but this takes a surprising amount of effort and concentration. Once I had gotten into a comfortable rhythm the clarity of thought and calmness of my mind was unexpected to say the least. As with the Asana there are plenty of Pranayama exercises that continue after the first simple one.
Finally, before the first ritual, come the exercises for controlling thought - Dharana. Our minds wander. It is human nature to get distracted. I would argue that in this day and age we are being constantly bombarded with all manner of signals to the point that our senses become overloaded. That makes it hard to concentrate on any one thing. While not physically taxing, I found the exercises for keeping my attention on a single point, while clearing all other thoughts from my mind, the most difficult. At the same time I immediately understood that being able to focus and concentrate on a single task without distractions or intruding thoughts is immensely valuable.
Then came the actual rituals. Thelema is not something that you should read about. Thelema is to be experimented, experienced, studied and practiced. The first ritual I learned was how to create a peaceful, sacred place where to do my work. First by creating a psychological barrier between this environment and the outside world, so that mundane distractions can be left outside while I’m working. Cleaning the space of any unwanted energies, allowing me to do my work inside an uncontaminated magical circle. Then further reinforcing the circle against undesirable influences by summoning desirable spiritual / archetypal beings to guard me during the Great Work.
On a practical level creating the circle wasn’t difficult. I had previously purchased a commercial-sized board that I can comfortably sit on. I had then covered the entire board with sticky-back plastic and used different colored wet erase markers to draw the magick circle - along with all the symbols that went with it. Drawing the circle took time and effort, because I’m not a very small person (6’5’’). However, once it was done I was very happy with the end-result. That was the easy part. The actual ritual took a lot of trial and error. A lot of repeating myself and trying out different things. The cool thing is that the wet erase surface is highly reusable and can be customized to each individual ritual. Add some occult paraphernalia and I now have a fully functional working environment where to continue my experiments.
What is magick? Crowley wrote that it is “the science and art of influencing change to occur in accordance with the True Will”, while he described sorcery as “the science and art of influencing change to occur in accordance with the ego-driven will of the practitioner.”
In closing I’ll point out the obvious: what I have written here are my own thoughts, experiments and experiences with Thelema. I have used multiple sources to get a better understanding of what I’m writing about, but ultimately this is just my viewpoint as a beginner. It is entirely possible that I’m wrong about one or more things. I’ll update this blog post as necessary as I continue studying Thelema - along with other occult traditions.