On Monday, September 10, 2012, the Dalai Lama wrote the following to his friends on Facebook(!):
All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.
The 14th Dalai Lama
Many, if not most of you reading this were brought up in a religion. Most of you were brought up within some sect of Christianity. A few of you were brought up Jewish. And since this blog is primarily read by Westerners, an even smaller number of you were brought up in other, religious traditions.
The current Dalai Lama, The 14th incarnation of the Living Buddha of Compassion, Tenzin Gyatso, is correct, I believe, in stating that “All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values.” What he did not make clear, however, is that in many instances people who are members of “the world’s major religions” pay no attention to these basic concepts, and instead bring forward their own beliefs that are actually contrary to the ethics of their supposed faith, claiming they are representative of the religion. The results are personality cults and sects led by extremists who ignore the actual messages of those faiths. A typical way to detect such extremists is that they will pick and choose what to believe from their religion’s teachings, take things out of both the context in which they were written and the context of the times, and refuse to even consider any contrary opinions, claiming that other opinions aren’t against them, but are against God.
I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
—Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony
Although here in the U.S. the percentage of the population with religious beliefs is one of the highest of any areas in the Western world, religious belief—or rather, the acceptance of convoluted, contrary to the original intent, pseudo-religious philosophy—is rapidly shrinking.
I have seen no indication that this is a conscious movement away from religion. A great part of this movement away from religions comes from unconscious feelings of dissatisfaction. People don’t wake up one day and say, as the Dalai Lama wrote, “But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate.” Rather, people simply lose interest in religion…or at least, in major religions.
Religion ≠ Spirituality
One of the realizations that people have is that sitting in a big room with someone telling you what to think, believe, and do, has little to do with the experience of the numinous, the feeling of the presence of the divine. As a result people turn to seeking…more. Some find this within other faiths including older versions of their previous religion or ones that were totally unexpected, such as Wicca. There is a belief among some religionists that the turning to non-major religions is simply a rebellion and a rejection of what they believe is God’s truth. However, this “away from” behavior is often just a part of the truth that is mirrored in a common action of unhappy children:
Children don’t run away from home just to escape what they don’t like.
They run toward what they believe may be better.
While it is true that many people come to Wicca or other non-major religions as a rejection of a religion they don’t like, they choose to stay because they find something they do like, something that was missing from their old religion.
Finding the Goddess isn’t enough.
It is the experience of the Goddess that keeps people in Wicca.
It is the experience of the divine, of the Goddess, that keeps people in Wicca. Without that experience of the transcendent, many people treat Wicca or other non-major religions as a fad, eventually returning to the religion of their youth or blending their needs with childhood memories resulting in new composite faiths blending the old and the new.
If Wiccans and members of other non-major religions do not provide a path for people to experience the spiritual, rather than being one of the fastest growing religions the numbers will begin to slow and then fall.
The Next Step
But for many, the experience of the divine won’t remain enough. Sensing that God/dess is there is an absolutely transcendent experience. Many people can drink of its waters for a long time. But eventually, just basking in the glow of the divine isn’t enough. Spirituality isn’t enough. Praying—one way communication with the divine asking for something—isn’t enough.
v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
But just as the experience of the divine will keep people in non-traditional, non-spiritual religions for a time, eventually this, too, will not be enough. Merely having the sense that the “divine is there” won’t be enough. People want full and direct communication with the divine, what is known as mysticism. This form of communication is one of the reasons divination practices are popular. It is also one of the most dangerous experiences for social structures.
If you become a mystic, if you can communicate directly with the divine, you no longer have any need for religions, for priests, ministers, rabbis, or imams. No wonder major religions are terrified of mystics! Well, that’s only partly true. Often, major religions will have ways of investigating mystical claims because they want to understand or control it. They want to stay in charge! Mysticism is a danger to the continuation of major and some non-major religions, especially personality cults.
The other problem is ego inflation. “I talk with God! You should all obey me.” Most people do not have an easy path to follow to a mystical life. As a result, the experience of communicating with the divine can lead to delusions of grandeur. As I like to say,
It’s great to have your head in the stars, but keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.
For those who avoid persecution from those threatened by mystics or your own ego inflation, mysticism may well be enough. But for some, the true adventurers, there is yet another phase.
The Ultimate Step
One of the concepts held by many mystics is that although the divine is behind the physical universe, there is no entity who is constantly pulling the strings. Whether you believe in some religious creation or a big bang followed by evolution, the universe moves on its own. The divine may choose to intervene, but is not constantly doing so. In order to avoid having to do so, the godhead put certain rules into place. Some people call these rules “forces of nature” or “the laws of physics.”
For example, in the physical universe there are only four known fundamental forces:
- Weak nuclear force*
- Strong nuclear force (what binds together an atomic nucleus)
Although all of these rules have been in existence since the beginning of the universe, it has been less than 100 years since numbers three and four were identified. Is it not possible that if there are rules that control the universe, there might be other rules, rules that go deeper and supersede or control the most common rules?
Even fewer in number than the mystics are those who seek to discover these rules and use them. This practice is known as magick. Often, the discovery of the rules of magick either come directly from interaction with the divine or through the records of someone who has had such an experience.
In my opinion the practitioner of magick needs to understand two basic things:
- That he or she has control of everything in their lives.
- That he or she is responsible for everything that happens in their lives, including unintended results of their magick.
Having the power of the divine does not make one divine, it simply gives power. And there’s a problem with this.
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
—Lord Acton (1834–1902)
Unfortunately, some people try to skip the intermediary steps of the progression outlined above. They leave out becoming spiritual. They avoid becoming a mystic. They want to jump directly to doing magick! This is absolutely possible. It can give a person power. Unfortunately, without a spiritual and ethical background, that power may corrupt.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn didn’t start new members learning magick. Traditionally, to join a coven, you had to spend time learning to experience and communicate with the divine. You only learned minor forms of magick until you achieved these goals.
Since you’re reading this post it’s probably likely that you’ve either read about or run into those who missed out on the spiritual and the mystical. Instead, they now claim to have secret knowledge nobody else has as they form their personality cult and try to maintain it.
Can you jump from wherever you are to the life of a magician? Absolutely.
Should you jump into magick? Maybe.
I don’t think the religion—>spirituality—>mysticism—>magick path is the only way. But I think that leaving out spirituality and mysticism while on your path toward becoming a magician may result in your being limited in what you can magickally accomplish and may turn you into the type of ego-centered person you probably did not want to be.
What do you think?
Were you spiritual and mystical before learning magick?
Are you discovering spirituality and mysticism as you learn magick?
Do you think spirituality and mysticism are not necessary for the magician?
* For the science geeks, in 1968, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force were shown to be two aspects of one force now called the electro-weak force.