Suffering & Joy

Sep 26, 2006
On time for once, it's become fall all of the sudden, although the leaves have only just started to turn. All of the summer humidity has gone out of the air, and it is quite literally easier to breathe. I've always found fall the most...realistic of the seasons; I feel more myself at this time of year than any other time at all. And I've started seriously gearing up for Hallowe'en/Samhain -- no way I'm going to let the over-commercialization of Christmas (already! in the craft stores! by the gods!) get in the way of my favorite holiday. Plus, now that I'm on a regular shift at work, I have enough downtime to write -- even if my supervisors look a little confused by my piles of Crowley books all over the place. And so, the work-through of Little Essays Toward Truth continues.


I have a serious problem (and I doubt I'm alone in the Pagan community in this) with the First Noble Truth. In Buddhism, Dukkah, suffering, is the most basic fact of human existence -- or, in the words of the Dread Pirate Roberts, Life is pain. Anybody who says differently is selling something. This idea, though, has always struck me as the same sort of escapist ideal that allows the Book religions to disregard this world in favor of the next. (I know that isn't strictly the way it works in Buddhism, but there is a strong enough correlation, and the idea is borrowed shoddily enough by many Western philosophers, that the implication still lingers in my mind.)

More specifically, then, I have been having a problem with the way Crowley throws around the First Noble Truth in his Little Essays Toward Truth (and as I've said before, the origins of almost all modern Paganism are in these sorts of writings -- although I admit that this is getting a little detailed and specific to Crowley's system, here.)

One of the problems with Crowley's writing is that he throws himself wholly into his immediate subject -- in his essay on Laughter, laughter is the most important, the most vital part of the Universe and the magician's practice. In his essay on Sorrow, which basically postulates the First Noble Truth as the only motivation for magickal study, the same is true. On the one hand, everything in this world is painful; on the other hand, one of the truths the enlightened seeker will discover is the nature of the Universal Joke. Some paradoxes I can deal with, but this one seems a little out there.

On reflection, I think Crowley actually intends the First Noble Truth in a somewhat more limited sense -- this world is nothing but pain for those who acknowledge nothing but this Universe and the mundane things in it. Self-awareness and knowledge of the true nature of things -- of magick, of higher mental planes, all sorts of things like that -- allow the enlightened person to find the Universe not only less painful, but downright hilarious.

Crowley's sequence of events differs fundamentally from the Buddhist sequence, which states that the realization that the world is pain is the beginning of enlightenment and eventual release from the world. Like an AA meeting, admitting the problem is the first step. Crowley, on the other hand, says that the realization that the immediate, material world is pain is the only motivation for reaching beyond it, which eventually gives not release but a greater understanding (and the ability to laugh at the Universe, even, presumably, the bits which were previously painful.)

I still think this is a little broad -- everything is painful? even the things you enjoy? so much for individual agency, if you can't even rely on your own emotions -- but it certainly has some logic in it. After all, one of the things people often get told when they're depressed (which is extremely unhelpful if we're talking clinical depression, by the way, and not just a crappy day at work) is to get a little perspective; Crowley has just turned this everyday occurrence into a cosmology. (He apparently rejects the Douglas Adams cosmology, which states that if anyone were ever to really 'get some perspective,' they would immediately be driven insane by the full knowledge of their own insignificance. Then again, Crowley was famously egotistical, so it's hardly surprising that this possibility never crossed his mind.)

I would be happy to write off Crowley's use of the First Noble Truth as a limited and wholly temporary state of mind if not for another bit of philosophy that also seems to be lifted imperfectly from Buddhism. For the advanced practitioner, Crowley recommends a state of mind he calls indifference. Indifference here being used in the sense of "without distinguishing," one is supposed to react to every aspect of the Universe with joy, presumably as a means of forcing higher levels of awareness. First of all, I still find this idea a little broad -- I have a hard time finding joy in the news from Iraq and Guantanamo -- but aside from the usual metaphysical hyperbole, well-intentioned though it may be, the way Crowley develops this concept reminds me also of the Third Noble Truth, Nirodha, or cessation of desire. In Buddhism, this follows linearly from the First Noble Truth: because everything is pain, we should desire nothing, because nothing could be worth getting, much less desiring. Crowley is instead arguing freedom from desire via lack of differentiation -- if everything in the Universe brings you joy, why bother to desire anything?

In the end it seems as if Crowley is trying to combine several Buddhist sensibilities, which he obviously admires, with his own worldliness, which was at least partially a reaction to his own conservative Christian upbringing. After all, Crowley is famous for his worldly excesses. He was just not the sort of person to write off this earthly plane as worthless and spiritually unhealthy. However, his solution -- that spiritual enlightenment merely turns the First Noble Truth upside down, with all the absolutes still intact -- is both a little incoherent and completely morally bankrupt. These are both fairly consistant problems with Crowley, unfortunately, and in fact it is probably the recurrence of these problems in his writing which put o many people off him completely, in spite of his many genuinely useful and interesting ideas.

I Wish

Sep 16, 2006
It would of course be the week that I discover a million new ideas for posts that I also discover Witches Weekly, a weekly question prompt for Pagan blogs. I love weekly prompts (I am on the verge of stealing the Friday Five from the political blogosphere) so yay! This week it's --

What is one thing relating to your spiritual path that you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t due to lack of money, time, etc. (Examples could be….creating your own altar room, going to visit a historical monument related to your spirituality, etc).

I'm lucky enough to have already gotten (most of) the travelling I really want done, and while like everybody else I do crave an altar room, what I really want to accomplish right now is a regular schedule, not just of meditation and devotion, but of serious mental exercise. I've always wanted to learn the ancient Greek memory techniques, which would also help with my visualization, and the effort I put into it in July really made a difference, but I got sidetracked with the move. Hopefully when my job settles into my final schedule I will be able to really set aside time for this.

What Works For Me

Sep 15, 2006
Never one to pass up a beta, I've upgraded to the new Blogger. Expect some fiddling with format and such while I try to figure out what they've done to the thing -- and I think one of the restrictions now is that old-Blogger accounts aren't compatible with new-Blogger accounts, so feel free to leave anonymous comments if the system seems to hate you for any reason.


I have refrained from writing mostly because I have been helping my roommate settle in, settling into my new job (oh god employment is so wonderful, even if I do have terrible hours at the moment), and fighting with a tempermental kitchen sink. I could have given you a very sanctimonious and self-reflective post on why these things do not encourage me to think about magic or religion at all, but I decided to save the tedium for something I was genuinely interested in.

One of the good things about my job is it involves an hour-long bus ride and a lot of downtime, so I'm getting a lot of reading done. Yesterday, on impulse, I picked up my copy of Alestair Crowley's Little Essays Toward Truth to take with me. Crowley is as close as I have ever gotten to finding Pagan literature that I really like; for all his over-reliance on Judaic and Christian ideas, his questionable combinations of Indian and Egyptian ideas, his egotism and his general self-righteousness, Crowley just does it for me. I can't explain it, except to say that I have always had an irrational love for the Victorian and the completely mad.

And, of course, I quite like many of Crowley's ideas. One of the first statements he makes in his essay on "Man" (and indeed one of his foundational ideas) is that "all phenomena ... may be classified for the purpose of discussing their observed relations, in any manner which experience may show to be the most convenient. ( ... There is no essential truth in any of these aids to thinking: convenience is the sole measure.)"

It walks the line, I suppose, between extreme relativism and extreme skepticism. On the one hand, denying the essential truth of any mode of thinking is tantamount to saying that one idea is as valid as another; evolution and creationism (to take a nice, incendiary example) are just two ideas, neither of which is absolutely true. It's the insistance on convenience that separates this statement from blanket relativism. Relativism refuses to make value judgements at all, but Crowley here is advocating judging systems based on convenience -- their usefulness to the practitioner.

To extend the earlier comparison, evolutionary thinking is useful in explaining all manner of things, from the biological origins of humanity to changing drug treatments, while creationism is useful primarily in promoting a specific Biblical literalism-based worldview. So if you're a patriarch of a Biblical literalism-based church, creationism is a great idea; for the rest of us, evolution is much more convenient. The whole basis for using convenience rather than truth as the basis for judgement comes from the tradition of philosophical skepticism, which de-emphasizes the possibility of ever really knowing the truth about anything. Of course, you can't go around denying the existence of everything in your daily life, so you have to judge things by their convenience, their use to you. (Unfortunately Crowley is in the habit of describing systems he likes as "scientific" rather than "convenient," but the concept stands.)

Reading this for about the tenth time (I always feel like I should blog these things; I've just never gotten around to it before) it occurs to me that this is where the eclectic "do whatever works for you" philosophy comes from, and not entirely without merit, although the idea has obviously been watered down drastically. Because that is exactly what Crowley says in this first essay -- "I think the Qabalah is the most useful tool in existence, but if you disagree, or if you can change it to suit your purposes better, do so -- just make sure you know what you're changing first and why." Which, in all fairness, is the responsible way to handle "whatever works for you" and the way I suspect a great many people do handle it. The problem comes in with the fact that relativism is a more common and more accessable idea than skepticism for most people, and so the eclectic ideal becomes too relativistic and, sorry, too open-minded. The emphasis on the statement should be on works, not on you.


Sep 1, 2006
I admit it, the response to my last post has given me a kind of blogging stage-fright, making me feel like my next post ought to be just as amazing, which has in turn given me complete writer's block on the last part of the Devotion series. My apologies. In the meantime, though, you can check out Deborah and Fiacharry's responses, and their takes on using salt in ritual and on the altar.

My weekend plans might have been slightly tempered by the reviews of the remake of The Wicker Man, out today -- The Wild Hunt seems to feel the same way I do about this whole remake concept, but I did say I'd go see the film if someone could promise me that Nicholas Cage dies in the end. I still haven't seen that promise, so I haven't quite decided yet what I'm going to do about it...