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Oliver St. John is the author of fifteen books covering Hermetic and Thelemic philosophy, Qabalah, operative magical Theurgy, the Tarot and astrology. He is a founding member of the Thelemic Magical Collegium, Ordo Astri, and has been a member of the Typhonian Order since 2000 e.v.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Thelemic Mysticism: Will to a Great Work

The Egyptian Book of the Law, Liber AL vel Legis, I: 2, professes:

The unveiling of the company of heaven.

Operations of magick or theurgy do not begin or end with a word or an oath; they begin and end with silence. We behold the sun and the stars in a light no less than that of divine revelation; yet what we perceive is not that; it is rather the product of a certain kind of congress between the absolute and ourselves. In the words of the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, beyond the fixed stars is the “Sky without Stars”. Put Qabalistically, the void or limitless space called Ain Soph forms points of junction between planetary bodies and the viewer; the sensible universe is thus enclosed between the Eye of the Eternal and the eye of the seer. The source, or void spirit, is defined as an absence of light. In the undifferentiated void are nodal points or space marks that form a nexus outside of space and time. The universe is a matrix providing body or form for lines of light unique to the position of the individual yet composed of an undifferentiated source.

None, breathed the light, faint and faery, of the stars, and two. For I am divided for love’s sake, for the chance of union.

Liber AL vel Legis, I: 28—29

In Thelemic cosmology we do not posit the absolute in terms of ‘one’, but in terms of zero, the void, and two, the power of dual manifestation by which the universe appears.

Zeus Battling Typhon, William Blake

Thelemic Mysticism: Zeus Battling Typhon, by William Blake

Thelema: Division Hither Homeward

This is the creation of the world, that the pain of division is as nothing, and the joy of dissolution all.

Liber AL vel Legis, I: 30

On the Qabalistic Tree of Life, the first emanation is Kether the Crown, the ‘one’. This unity may be understood as a cloak or veil of concealment—at best a ‘concentration’—of the triple void named Ain Soph Aur.

There is division hither homeward; there is a word not known.

Liber AL vel Legis, III: 2

The first emanation after the hypothetical unity of Kether the Crown is Chokmah. Chokmah means “Wisdom”, which the Greeks call Sophia. And yet Chokmah expresses the primal duality. Chokmah declares, “Two!” and not “One”. Chokmah is therefore paired with Binah, “Understanding”. Together these are the root of force and form, the means of dual manifestation. Mystic unity, often misconstrued as oneness of being, is not a goal but is the yogic means to make the inner Seeing Eye ‘single’.

Before going further we need to make clear what we mean by use of the term “yoga”. We are not here discussing physical exercises designed to relax the mind and make the body more supple and efficient. That is by far the most popular kind of yoga today, since the aim is entirely material, physical, and is about the attainment of that elusive phantom of our deeply troubled times, “wellbeing”. The spiritual and magical yoga or (literally) “joining together” we wish to discuss here is an integral part of the Occult Science, by which Reality may be known.

In the Western Hermetic tradition, ritual magick and yoga are combined yet the goal is no different than that expressed by Patanjali in his Eight Limbs of Yoga. Defined as Samadhi or “Union with the Lord (or God)”, we first fuse together subject and object through yogic concentration and stillness (of mind and body). Division is essentially creative. Division and separation expresses begetting, multiplication, the discernment of one thing from another. BRA, which has the meaning, “created; to carve out; to separate or select”, is the root of the first word in the book of Genesis, “In the beginning” (BRAShITh).[1]

In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and the darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Genesis 1: 1–4

The opening of the book of Genesis describes the actions of the Logos, the mind, will and word of the divine absolute, attributed Qabalistically to Chokmah. The bible therefore begins not with ‘one’, but with ‘two’. The uniting of subject and object is to return to the source, that which cannot be defined and is expressed only as a “great mystery” in the language of the sages of old time. Yoga is not about evolution—though we could be forgiven for thinking that if we have spent much time studying occultists of the twentieth century. Our modern sages were as much influenced by Darwin as they were influenced by 19th century notions of ‘progress’. Yoga is about involution, the return to the source of all.

Thelema and Praxis: a Great Work

There must always be division in the self when it comes to the practice of magick and yoga, and until the True Will (Thelema) is known, the personal will is constantly at odds. Even then—as we shall see—illumination is not the end of the struggle, the spiritual battle. Magick and yoga, if pursued to the end, will ultimately depose a terrible tyrant, which we call the human ego, and put in its place the true King and guide of the soul, which we call the Holy Guardian Angel. The mind-body complex will use every trick in the book—including one or two no one has even heard of—to dissuade us from taking up the practice of magick and yoga.

1. The body says, “We can do this tomorrow, for now I am very comfortable as I am and I want to enjoy this comfort now so that I know that I am alive and well and living this life. These grave matters of spirit, this arduous work—extra work at that!—can wait”.

2. On the other side of the coin, the body says, “I am uncomfortable. Something is not right and I need to know what it is. I will be better equipped tomorrow. Things will be different then. For now, I am uneasy with this. We can do this tomorrow, when I am sure of myself.”

When the will is divided there is no single purpose and no single eye that can look into eternity. To the divided will, the divided self, matter reigns supreme, is completely invincible. And yet this restless condition of mind, this unease with things, is the necessary prerequisite to any Great Work. It is the question that opens the quest for the Graal in the Arthurian legends: “What ails thee, o king?” At the same time, the condition is seized upon by the body and ego as persuasive proof that any Great Work is mistaken and should be either abandoned or postponed until conditions arrive that are more perfectly suitable. Unfortunately, it is the nature of the Western magical path, which is naturally more materially focussed than the Eastern, to make this the most common trick that hapless practitioners can play upon themselves.

Thelema and Satan

The Christian mystics made quite a lot of fuss about the fleshly opposition, likening this to a constant struggle with Satan. This does not sit well with the majority of today’s magical practitioners. Aleister Crowley, often falsely accused of ‘Satanism’, insisted that we should best understand Satan as the principle of Initiation through trial and ordeal—a very Christian idea if we consider its source is in the account of Matthew 4: 1–11. Even natural mystics such as Jacob Boehme asserted that it is the struggle that is the very thing needed! Without that, there is no Great Work. We are human; we are imperfect. The greatest of saints were great not because it was easy for them, but because they encountered—and overcame—everything that hell had to throw at them. Unfortunately, our rationality is no ally in the Great Work, but is definitely on the side of Satan—that is, the materialistic Opposer to any Great Work. According to the Egyptian Book of the Law:

If Will stops and cries Why, invoking Because, then Will stops & does nought.
If Power asks why, then is Power weakness.

Liber AL vel Legis, II: 30–31

Thelema vs. Humanistic Psychology

Mystery is regarded with utmost contempt by the modern materialist thinker, who wants everything explained in rational terms. To the psychological reductionist, all mysteries are anathema and are to be regarded with suspicion. Humanistic psychology boils everything down to the question posed in couch therapy: “How are we feeling today?” The aim is to feel good about oneself. Feeling good in the face of the tragedy of the world requires some dishonesty to accomplish. The needs of the human ego are paramount in such personal diagnostics. On the other hand, a magical and spiritual practice, far from massaging the ego, will tend—at least at first—to be a source of pain and discomfort to mind and body.

Modern philosophical writing and thinking, depending as it does entirely on the appeal to rationality and intellect, reduces any Great Work to mere self-affirmation. Worse, humanistic psychology declares that the self can empower the self, that the self can convey to its own, as though a ‘one’ could give to a ‘one’—the ultimate delusion of the human ego. The language of humanistic psychology—which is now the common currency of the academic philosophical establishment—affirms the woeful solipsistic mantram that there is nothing beyond the self, that there is no truth beyond the self, and that truth is only what you make of it personally. Humanistic psychological thinking can be summed up in one short sentence: The self, the whole self, and nothing but the self! It is what René Guenon described as the force of anti-Initiation in his Crisis of the Modern Age. Here is the hypnotic refutation of Initiation, the Great Work in all ancient traditions.[2]

The Gilded Cage, Evelyn De Morgan

Psychological Reductionism: The Gilded Cage by Evelyn De Morgan

Thelema and Mysticism

Jacob Boehme, on the other hand, clearly understood that the divine will or Thelema is not a personal will or desire. Jacob Boehme was born in Görlitz in 1575, and began life as a shepherd, eventually becoming a master shoemaker. His work was suppressed for a time, and he was fortunate not to have been tried and found guilty of heresy. Having nothing with the desire to attain greater happiness, comfort or any sense of wellbeing to placate the ego, Boehme’s expressed concern was to know God—which is exactly the desire as expressed in the Eastern tradition by the Sage Ramakrishna and his discipline Vivekananda, for example. In Confessions, Boehme writes:[3]

I besought the Lord earnestly for his Holy Spirit and his grace, that he would please to bless and guide me in him, and take that away from me which turned me from him. I resigned myself wholly to him, that I might not live to my own will, but his …

Thelema is the Greek word used many times in the New Testament to describe the divine will, expressly not the personal will or desire of the ego.

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.

Book of John 6: 38

The Christian term “grace” is as much a technical term as darshana, and should never be confused with favour.[4] The Thelemite will in all probability eschew the Christian Saviour—if the Light of the World is placed in such terms—while readily accepting that the Holy Guardian Angel must be the sole guide, “King, Ruler and Helper” as it is put in the Graeco-Egyptian Bornless Ritual.

This is the Lord of the Gods: This is the Lord of the Universe: This is He whom the winds fear: This is He, who having made voice by His commandment is Lord of all things: King, Ruler and Helper.

What if we should persist with the practice, resisting all contrivances of mind and body to pull us from the path? Perhaps nothing! Or perhaps what is called in terms of Christian mysticism grace and in Eastern mysticism, darshana, literally, “a glimpse”. Boehme, in the simple but beautiful language of his Confessions, describes a direct experience that completely transcends all previous knowledge:

In this … the Gate was opened to me, that in one quarter of an hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together at an University …

Here, Boehme directly perceived something of the “great mystery”, and received a “thorough view of the Universe, as a complex moving fulness wherein all things are couched and wrapped up”. This was at first impossible for him to explain or set down in writing:

Yet it opened itself in me, from time to time, as in a young plant. It was with me for the space of twelve years, and was as it were breeding. I found a powerful instigation within me before I could bring it forth into external form of writing; but whatever I could apprehend with the external principle of my mind that I wrote down.

Far from being a state of finality or “attainment”, Boehme insists that such glimpses are no more than encouragement, and that the struggle goes on:

Afterwards, however, the Sun shone upon me a good while, but not constantly, for sometimes the Sun hid itself, and then I knew not nor well understood my own labour. Man must confess that his knowledge is not his own but from God, who manifests the Ideas of Wisdom to the soul, in what measure he pleases …

Boehme insists that in writing down his experiences in case this might help some other on the path, his hand is guided by a spirit that is utterly beyond his self:

Neither is this my natural will, that I can do it by my own small ability; for if the Spirit were withdrawn from me, then I could neither know nor understand my own writings.

Nonetheless, in the prayer of Boehme that closes the first chapter of Confessions, there is clearly an intimacy with the Serpent Power, the action of Kundalini Shakti as termed in the Eastern Tantras:

O immense Greatness! I cannot compare thee with any thing, but only with the resurrection from the dead; there will the Love-Fire rise up again in us, and rekindle again our astringent, bitter, and cold, dark and dead powers, and embrace us most courteously and friendly. O gracious, amiable, blessed Love and clear bright Light, tarry with us, I pray thee, for the evening is at hand.

Curiously, this echoes the words of the English mystic Thomas De Quincey on the approach of nightfall in his own Confessions:

A sudden step upon the stairs broke up my dream, and recalled me to myself. Dangerous hours were now drawing near, and I prepared for a hasty farewell.

Materialism insists on productivity, and this is easily translated even to the most sincere motivation to begin a spiritual path, so the will is subverted to the vain quest for mere self-affirmation. Goethe produced his writing, his poetry; Blake produced his etchings, his wonders of colour and form. Aleister Crowley produced, with the aid of his wife Rose and at least one discarnate spirit, his Egyptian Book of the Law, the Thelemic ‘holy book’. Kenneth Grant produced, at length, his Wisdom of S’lba. It is easy to imagine we must all produce our own ‘holy book’, our masterpiece of art or literature—some tangible material evidence that we have been where we have been, that we have seen what we have seen.

Indeed, it is wonderful to produce works of art, or even of mysticism, but if we fall into the materialistic trap of seeking self-identification and self-validation in all things, we close the Abyss as the limit placed above our own heads and hearts.

Materialism insists on a result as final, as ‘product’. At the end of the line is the product itself, and the consumer that purchases it through the need to self-identify (thus the ‘brand’ is all-important). Aleister Crowley, in his instructional works, spoke perhaps rather too frequently of “attainment”—as if there is truly something to attain and someone to attain it. Sages of old times were more pragmatic than has often been afforded them by those that wish to make saints of men and women. The second chapter of Jacob Boehme’s The Confessions gets straight to the business of daily strife. It is not his aim to confess worldly ‘sins’ as such—thus inviting prurience—but rather to confess that a Great Work is as much a daily struggle for him as it is for anyone else. The fifteen minutes of being born aloft on wings of grace may well be followed by twelve years arduous work.

I am a sinful and mortal man, as well as thou, and I must every day and hour grapple, struggle, and fight with the Devil who afflicts me in my corrupted lost nature, in the wrathful power which is in my flesh, as in all men continually. Suddenly I get the better of him, suddenly he is too hard for me; yet, notwithstanding, he has not overcome or conquered me, though he often gets the advantage over me. If he buffets me, then I must retire and give back, but the divine power helps me again; then he also receives a blow, and often loses the day in the fight. But when he is overcome, then the heavenly gate opens in my spirit, and then the spirit sees the divine and heavenly Being, not externally beyond the body, but in the well-spring of the heart. There rises up a flash of the Light in the sensibility or thoughts of the brain, and therein the Spirit does contemplate.

Boehme makes clear that such illumination is purely internal, “not externally beyond the body”, yet it arises within, not of the self yet apprehended by the self. This “Devil”, as with “Satan” mentioned earlier as the Opposer to all Great Works, is no more and no less than the ordinary human nature and personal will, which we conveniently wrap in the psychoanalytic term “ego”, the Latin word for “I”. It is certainly possible to know a truth that transcends the self, that is no merely rational self-identifying assertion. It is even possible to be informed by such a truth or light while immersed in the darkness of mind and body that it is our lot to dwell in:

Though an angel from heaven should tell this to me, yet for all that I could not believe it, much less lay hold on it; for I should always doubt whether it was certainly so or no. But the Sun itself arises in my spirit, and therefore I am most sure of it.

The Egyptian Book of the Law, in its three chapters and 220 verses, makes it starkly clear that human rationality—termed as the “dogs of reason”—is doomed, and is the arch means of self-dooming.

Also reason is a lie; for there is a factor infinite & unknown; & all their words are skew-wise.
Enough of Because! Be he damned for a dog!

Liber AL vel Legis, II: 32—33

Yet the “great mystery” is declared as fully knowable—this is in direct contradiction to humanistic and materialist thinking, which is founded on the impossible and self-defeating premise of the agnostic, the egotistical negation of the atheist. Nuit, the Egyptian Star Goddess of Thelemic cosmology, is clearly a friend of Jacob Boehme when she declares, in Liber AL vel Legis, I: 58:

I give unimaginable joys on earth: certainty, not faith, while in life, upon death; peace unutterable, rest, ecstasy; nor do I demand aught in sacrifice.

Such “certainty”, such a Sun arising in the spirit, as it was put by Boehme, must not be thought of as an end, a product, a finality. How many have abandoned the path, thinking that their daily struggle only proved their unworthiness, their lack of success or, alternatively, that the Great Work itself is a lie, a fraud, a bad joke played upon suffering humanity?

How many have sought comfort, reassurance, even self-validation—the false graal loved by the forces of anti-Initiation—in a spiritual or magical path? These are the first to give it up in horror when confronted with what may seem an unequal measure of pain, discomfort, doubt and self-negation. While none of these spring from the eternal, the so-called ‘negative’ qualities so feared by the materialist are nonetheless grist to the mill of Initiation:

Dost thou fail? Art thou sorry? Is fear in thine heart? Where I am these are not.

Liber AL vel Legis, II: 46—47

Woe, sorrow and failure are as clouds masking the infinite radiance of eternity. The nature of a Great Work—and the will to a Great Work—is to be able to proclaim, as did Jacob Boehme, that no matter how powerful the human ego is to subvert our purpose, we have not wholly been overcome or conquered. We have not given in, or given up. We must understand that the “fight of the spirit” is “sometimes down and sometimes uppermost”. In the words of Boehme:

The soul liveth in great danger in this world; and therefore this life is very well called the valley of misery, full of anguish, a perpetual hurly-burly, pulling and hauling, warring, fighting, struggling and striving. But the cold and half-dead body does not always understand this fight of the soul. The body does not know how it is with it, but is heavy and anxious; it goes from one business to another, and from one place to another; it seeketh for ease and rest. And when it comes where it would be, yet it finds no such thing as that which it seeks. Then doubtings and unbelief come upon it; sometimes it seems to it as if God had quite cast it off. It doth not understand the fight of the spirit, how the same is sometimes down and sometimes uppermost.

Also, lest we cling to vain notions of saints in white robes and the human sanctification—even deification—of great men and lofty, who have climbed the pinnacles:

Thou must know that I write not here as a story of history, as if it was related to me from another. I must continually stand in that combat, and I find it to be full of heavy strivings where in I am often struck to the ground, as well as all other men. But for the sake of the violent fight, and for the sake of the earnestness which we have together, this revelation has been given me, and the vehement driving or impulse to bring it so to pass as to set all down on paper … For when the flash rises up in the centre, one sees through and through, but cannot well apprehend or lay hold on it; for it happens to such an one as when there is tempest of lightning, where the flash of fire opens itself and suddenly vanishes. … For the old Adam belongs to the earth, and does not, with the flesh, belong to God. In this combat I had many hard trials to my heart’s grief. My Sun was often eclipsed or extinguished, but did rise again; and the oftener it was eclipsed the bright and clearer was its rising again. I do not write this for my own praise, but to the end that the reader may know wherein my knowledge stands, that he might not seek from me that which I have not, or think me to be what I am not.

Evelyn Underhill, a member of the Golden Dawn, said this about Jacob Boehme’s work:
For him, the universe was primarily a religious fact: its fiery energies, its impulse towards growth and change, were significant because they were aspects of the life of God. His cosmic vision was the direct outcome of spiritual experience; he told it, because he wished to stimulate in all men the spiritual life, make them realise that “Heaven and Hell are present everywhere, and it is but the turning of the will either into God’s love or into His wrath, that introduceth into them”.

While Thelemites and others might find some of this language too ‘Christian’ or ‘Godly’ to please their aesthetic sensibilities, we could posit that there is plenty of evidence of “God’s love” in Chapter One of the Egyptian Book of the Law. There is also an abundance of what Boehme would term as God’s “wrath” in the third chapter of that remarkable testimonial to the enduring power of ancient Egyptian magick. If we look for the meaning behind the metaphors, especially when that language has flowed from the hand of a mystic through the heart’s fountain of direct spiritual knowledge, we generally find that there is only one spiritual path in reality. The diversity, the apparent choices of a path to follow—including what many now prefer to imagine is their own ‘personal’ path—is the appearance of a doorway, not the entrance or the place where it may lead

There is a dramatised audio podcast version of this article here:

Thelemic Mysticism and Jacob Boehme


[1] Allan Bennett, a member of the Golden Dawn and friend and mentor of Aleister Crowley, wrote a rather beautiful Qabalistic essay on the first seven words of the bible, A Note on Genesis, which was published as part of The Equinox series of journals.

[2] For an example of humanistic psychological reductionism see The Challenge of Eternal Recurrence, Kathleen O’Dwyer, Philosophy Now Issue #93.

[3] The quotations from Jacob Boehme in this article are from The Confessions of Jacob Boehme (Kessinger Publishing Company, Montana).

[4] Aleister Crowley confused Christian mystic “grace” with the ordinary psychological meaning of this word in his sadomasochistic ritual called “Mass of the Phoenix”.