The avowed objective of magick and other similar spiritual disciplines is to become self aware. The maxim “Know Thyself” from Apollo’s temple at Delphi has become the catch cry of the New Age. Although it has a distinct historical connection to Hermetic magick, this fundamental goal of the mystic has even been placed at the top of the list of the Thirteen Goals of a Witch by Scott Cunningham in his book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner1. As a part of such popular spiritual movements it has become a part of the spiritual language of the Age of Aquarius but while it is commonly cited there is rarely any mention of how this self knowledge can be obtained.
To understand how to become develop this knowledge of self it is first necessary to grasp what that knowledge is of. There are two methods of knowing that are possible. Firstly there is the knowledge that is inferred, or acquired indirectly through the reports of others. The second kind of knowing is that which is empirical and acquired through direct acquaintance with the subject. As we only really have the opportunity to become directly acquainted with our own self, the knowledge of it must be acquired by direct participation in examining what constitutes self. This is referred to as Gnosis.
Gnosis, the common Greek noun for knowledge, is used in an occult or spiritual context to indicate a spiritual knowledge or, more correctly, a religion of knowledge. The object of this is to free man from the restraints of earthly existence through insight into an essential relationship of the self, as soul or spirit, with the supramundane. Thus the experience of true gnosis is theurgic.
“Man, know thyself … and thou shalt know the gods.”– Proverb from the Inner Ancient Temple of Luxor
The Powers of the Sphinx are the four fundamental skills that must be acquired by the magician if he will wield his magickal armory in his assault upon the heavens. As the object of that magick is to directly apprehend the influence of the divine it follows that the first step is to understand the instrument by which that divinity is apprehended. Plato explains it clearly in Phaedrus when he has Socrates explain the need for beginning with a clear understanding of yourself before progressing to make an interpretation of the universe.
I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things. And so I dismiss these matters and accepting the customary belief about them, as I was saying just now, I investigate not these things, but myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.– Plato, Phaedrus
The knowledge that Plato is referring to isn’t the superficial awareness of existence that is driven by wants and desires but the identity that is behind those motivating forces. The gnosis that leads to freedom is a deeper understanding of the existence that is behind our apprehensions. This begins with understanding that the world that we perceive with the senses isn’t the reality that it appears to be.
The ‘world’ of experience is not given in experience: it is constructed by thought from the data of sense.– C. I. Lewis2
The sensual experience of the world that each of us has is not the direct apprehension of reality that we perceive it to be. The process of interpreting our sense impressions stands between our direct knowledge of a thing and the thing itself. All that can be said is that within a very narrow band of perception that our senses detect the impulses that come to them and filter these for the mind to interpret.
Even before these sense impressions reach the conscious level of our thoughts they have been altered and interpreted by the subconscious on the basis of its previous experiences. The subconscious discards what it deems to be unnecessary, measures the new experience against old ones, considers the cultural and social implications of every sense impression before passing them along to the intellect for conscious analysis.
Buddhism calls these filters the Khandhas, meaning aggregates or heaps. There are five aggregates that filter our perceptions and becoming aware of their influence is the first step towards mastering them rather than being driven by them. These five are the physical form, the impressions of our senses, cognition of appearances, volition or actions that are habitual or conditioned, and consciousness that is defined as the mental faculty in regard to perception, cognition and experience3.
These aggregates of sense impressions and experiences create the facile identity that we associate with our ‘self’, our individuality. Thus the image of the self that is constructed in this way is constantly in flux as one or another of these conduits of perception is dominant or preferable. The self that they reveal is an impermanent image and so it must be assumed that as an instrument for perceiving the spiritual self and its relationship with the supramundane that they are inadequate to reveal the truth. Further, clinging to that level of experience is a barrier to gnosis because it can only apprehend that which is impermanent and so they are inadequate to the search for the constant self.
Obviously, to perceive things as they really are rather than as the mind chooses to interpret and construct them it will be necessary to transcend the filters of the khandhas. The attachment to reliance upon them as the measure of perception must be dispensed with, although it is just as false to abandon them. Rather, the clearest perception of the self will include them, understand the motive force behind them and incorporate them into a greater understanding of the self. They are not the enemies of gnosis they are her handmaidens.
Through a deeper understanding of the motive forces that are concealed within our cognitive processes we begin to make the analysis of the self that leads to gnosis; to knowledge of the truest ‘self’. In order to break our attachment to these perceptual filters it is necessary to become aware of them and the influence that they have on our actions. In order to transcend the mundane we must make ourselves aware of it, we must become mindful.
0. Behold the Yoke upon the neck of the Oxen! Is it not thereby that the Field shall be ploughed? The Yoke is heavy but joineth together them that are separate—Glory to Nuit and to Hadit, and to Him that hath given us the Symbol of the Rosy Cross!
Glory unto the Lord of the Word Abrahadabra, and Glory unto Him that hath given us the Symbol of the Ankh, and of the Cross within the Circle!
1. These are the Beast wherewith thou must plough the Field; the Unicorn, the Horse, and the Ox. And these shalt thou yoke in a triple yoke that is governed by One Whip.
2. Now these Beasts run wildly upon the earth and are not easily obedient to the Man.– Aleister Crowley- Liber III vel Jugorum4
Thus Bind Thyself, and Thou Shalt Be For Ever Free.
Mindfulness is defined as the state or quality of being mindful; ‘attention; regard’; memory; intention, purpose. Taking thought or care of; heedful of; keeping remembrance of5. In this context mindfulness is the focus of attention on the motive source of our actions. To become self aware we must first become aware of the elements of that self.
We must be mindful of what we are doing physically, of our senses and feelings, our thoughts and we must be aware of our subjective preferences. Before making a decision or taking an action we must be mindful of the motives behind it. By becoming mindful we constantly reflect on our experiences to gain an understanding of the motives behind our reactions to them. When we can see these motivations we will see ourselves as we are, not as we choose to interpret ourselves, and we will have begun to become aware of the connection that the individual self has with the motive behind all of creation.
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet– Psalms 8:3-6
Focusing on the motives behind actions shifts our attention from the facile interpretation of experiences that are presented to us by the Khandhas to an objective appraisal of how those filters of impression have reacted to those experiences. This shift in the pole of our attention moves from the ego driven center that is focused on the object, to the apprehension of the subjective interpretation that we make of our experiences6. In doing this we break our attachment to what an experience seems to us to be. We replace that perception of what that experience means. In doing this we move one step closer to understanding the relationship that the essential self has with the supramundane. We begin to perceive from the perspective of being present.
Presence is simply defined as the fact or condition of being present, demeanor, carriage or aspect of a person5. In a spiritual context it also indicates an incorporeal influence that is felt to be or conceived as present. When a person is present they have freed their awareness of the self that has been concealed behind the false impressions of their sensual perceptions. Mindful of the faculty that the intellect has for interpreting experiences according to its own artificial and impermanent apperceptions we begin to evaluate experiences as they occur, in the moment that they happen. We become present in the moment and participate in it rather than being subject to it and driven by our conditioned responses to stimuli.
The Magick of Mindfulness
The goal of all magick is to unite the subjective self with the object of its aspirations. The simplest spell of witchcraft that has the most material of objectives sets this goal for itself. The same is true of the highest magick which aims at uniting the microcosm with the macrocosm. In fact it is much easier to be successful at the pure operations of High Magick because the operator has full control over all of the variables in his mystick equation.
Employing magick on the revelation of the highest, least mundane part of the self requires only that the magus breaks his attachment to the image that has been developed of himself by his apperceptions in order to see the truth behind that illusion. This is achieved through mindfulness which reveals the attachments to the mundane world that stand between us and the direct apprehension of the supramundane.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.– Matthew 19:23-26
The Path of Presence
The practice of being mindful awakens an awareness of the details of our experiences rather than a blanket acceptance of them. This shift in the level of awareness to being more attentive and thoughtful rather than reactive and instinctual makes us conscious of moments of presence in our lives. These are moments of stillness in which we can view experiences without the filter of the khandhas and in which we begin to see things as they really are rather then as our apperceptions have rendered them for us.
As the practice of mindfulness replaces our conditioned responses and preconceptions the state of presence becomes more common. Devotion to the path of presence gradually breaks the attachments that have held us to an awareness of only the mundane, that have concealed reality behind the conceptual constructs of the intellect. It reveals a constant present in which the filters of the ego driven facile self can no longer motivate reaction because it is able to experience from a place of perfect balance and stillness in which the genuine self can express itself in its truest Will.
1. The impact of this book on 21st Century eclectic spiritual practices has extended beyond the confines of the Wiccan ethos; see Scott Cunningham, Solitaries, and Self-Initiation– The Wild Hunt June 14, 2012 Jason Pitzl-Waters
2. Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge- C. I. Lewis, New York: Charles Scribners. Reprinted by Dover Publications (New York), 1956. p. 29.
3. For a full description of the five khandhas see The Buddha’s Teachings– Rodger R Ricketts 2012
4. The A.A. method for training in midfulness may seem extreme but it is effective. See Liber III vel Jugorum, Equinox Volume 1, Number 4
6. See The Twin Poles of Attention, Richard Griffiths, SQ Institute website