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Learning the Joy of Existence in Thelema

Learning the Joy of Existence in Thelema

by Vincent St. Clare


“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Henry Miller

“Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains.”

Liber AL vel Legis

I’ve done enough suffering in my life. I often think I just can’t do this anymore, that after nearly three decades of bullshit I just want to lay down and never get up again. Yet I know I still have a long way to go: I’m only 28, so this is by no means close to being over, I’m afraid.

I mean, we all do suffer in one way or another. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but if we had to make a bet I think it would be safe to assume we’ve both had our fair share of crap to wade through. That’s simply the nature of being human. But sometimes it’s difficult to look your abysmal luck square in the face and say, “Sure, I’ll keep putting up with this.”

Granted, I guess I should count my lucky stars. I’m in a much better place emotionally than where I was, say, eight months ago. I was just a mess back then. I won’t lie: my track record for mental stability isn’t the best, and too many nights booze and pills had comforted me and rocked me to sleep. These days I can actually lay off those vices a little more, and I don’t feel too too bad on a daily basis.

Yet the joy of life continues to escape me nonetheless. Sure, I’m calm and cozy enough in my own skin, but things just feel drab and dull. The real pleasantries of existence feel somehow out of reach.

“Is this just the latent effect of the way my mind works?” I ask myself. “Or, even if I truly conquer my problems, will I always be this way?”

I just feel stuck.

As a fledgling Thelemite I look to Thelemic texts and Crowley’s works to offer me some kind of insight into the joy of life, and I find great wisdom, albeit a kind I find difficult to actually implement into my life. (These ideas are so abstract and metaphysical: how to go about making them concrete and experiential?)

In Magick Without Tears (published 1954), Crowley describes three schools of magick: the black, yellow, and white. The black school sees the conditions of life as best fled from, and includes such traditions as Buddhism (with its notion of Samsara) and Christianity (with its doctrine of sin). The yellow school sees the conditions of life as generally neutral, and includes Taoism. The white school sees the conditions of life as inherently joyful and positive, and includes Thelema.

But can one experience this seemingly transcendent and spiritual joy and positivity on a consistent, or even continual, basis?

Crowley speaks of different trances—different states of mind that we are capable of tapping into, given the right conditions. He explains these various trances in detail in his work Little Essays Toward Truth. (1938.) One such trance is the Trance of Love.

In that work Crowley explains love thusly:

“Its essence is this: any two things unite, with a double effect; firstly, the destruction of both, accompanied by the ecstasy due to the relief of the strain of separateness; secondly, the creation of a third thing, accompanied by the ecstasy of the realisation of existence, which is Joy until with development it becomes aware of its imperfection, and loves.”

Elsewhere he explains that the universe itself, being a series of such encounters—think of hydrogen nuclei in stars fusing into helium, or matter and antimatter meeting and annihilating into energy, or a mother and father reproducing to form a child, but losing sperm and an egg as a result—is itself filled with love, and thus the joy that springs from it.

Hence we read in The Book of the Law, “Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains.” (AL 2:9.)

Of course, it feels difficult, and oftentimes outright impossible, to actually experience things in such a way. I do not simply wake up in the morning and feel my heart jump with joy. I do not see a dog turd on the sidewalk and, strange though it may be to most, feel a deep, transcendental love for it. (Though, I wonder, does the true mystic, or magus?) And I certainly don’t experience joy in my suffering: I can’t imagine that I could be getting my hand sawed off and think to myself, well, this is just joyful! (Though does the adept, or the master of the temple—at least in their own way, or at least in part?)

In his commentary on Liber AL, Crowley explains the previously quoted passage in an interesting way:

“The Universe is a Puppet-Play for the amusement of Nuit and Hadit in their Nuptials; a very Midsummer Night’s Dream. So then we laugh at the mock woes of Pyramus and Thisbe, the clumsy gambols of Bottom; for we understand the Truth of Things, how all is a Dance of Ecstasy. “Were the world understood, Ye would know it was good, a Dance to a lyrical measure!” The nature of events must be “pure joy;” for obviously, whatever occurs is the fulfilment of the Will of its master. Sorrow thus appears as the result of any unsuccessful – therefore, ill-judged – struggle. Acquiescence in the order of Nature is the ultimate Wisdom.”

Nuit, of course, is infinite space (though one may easily argue She also represents other things, as well); and Hadit may, in one sense, be described as the true, inner, or atomic “self,” the infinitesimal locus at the center of a being or inanimate thing’s personal universe (though one may argue He also represents other things, as well): their “play” or interaction must be a form of love, if we go by Crowley’s definition of love as a form of coming into and achieving union. The self or or essence of a thing, representing a point in space, or rather a “point-event,” comes into contact with the infinity surrounding it, and produces a third phenomenon. Love begetting joy, according to Crowley, and the universe subsisting on countless interactions we may describe as love, existence is thus pure joy.

Additionally, if we observe the phrase “whatever occurs is the fulfilment of the Will of its master,” and we apply this concept to the totality of existence, we find that there can be no event that is not a part of the will of the universe. All is as it is, and all must be as it must be, and all becomes as it should (note this is not an ethically prescriptive “should”) based on what has gone before it—that is, based on cause and effect, or what one may describe as karma.

And indeed, “Acquiescence in the order of nature”—in so many words acceptance of things as they are.

Before I developed an interest in Thelema I was very much interested in Zen Buddhism. (I still am, though I’ll admit that these days I’m mostly focused on Qabalah and Western esotericism.) And now I am reminded, thinking of such acceptance, of a Zen proverb:

“If you understand, things are just as they are. If you do not understand, things are just as they are.” That’s how it goes.

Yes: whether you understand or not, why not accept things just as they are? Do not struggle to “get” it, just be here.

Speaking of Zen, one of the most interesting books I read on the topic was The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery (published 1973), a memoir by Dutch writer and traveler Janwillem van de Wettering. The book recounts the author’s stay in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery, and some of his experiences engaging in long periods of meditation.

Anyway, to get back to the topic of dog turds, the passage I recall best from the book was one about a feces. In the book, van de Wettering explains that after long periods of silent meditation his perception of moment-to-moment life begins to change, and he starts to know joy through normal experience.

“It is irritating, annoying, to be shut up all the time, to be unable to talk, not to be able to say: “Here I am, I have experienced something, I have thought of something, I believe I know something, I understand something, please listen to me.” What irritated me most, I think, was that nobody wanted to listen to me when I discovered that meditation, even the blundering sort of meditation I was engaged in, led to new experiences with colour and shape. I noticed that when I walked through the temple garden, the observation of bits of moss on rocks, or a slowly moving goldfish, or reeds swaying with the wind, led to ecstasy.

By losing myself in the colours and shapes around me I seemed to become very detached, an experience which I had known before, in Africa, after using hashish. The feeling wasn’t only caused by observing, being aware of, “beautiful” things, such as goldfish or pieces of moss; a full dustbin or dogshit with flies around it led to exactly the same result.”

This makes me wonder if my malaise, my lack of joy, is the result of too little meditation—or perhaps too little magick. (I’d argue much of magick is a kind of meditation, though after another manner.) After all, if it worked for van de Wettering, why shouldn’t it work for me? “Practice makes perfect,” as they say. And philosophical conjecture can only do so much. Perhaps the best way forward is to simply try, to practice.

Indeed, it’s unlikely that one could simply think one’s way into what Crowley described as the Trance of Love—though I will say that there are claims that Qabalists who contemplate their art long enough may either go mad or reach a mystical trance, especially (supposedly) by ruminating over gematria. (I’ve only heard this once or twice before, so please don’t take it as gospel.)

Laughter, too, is often a product of joy, and Crowley describes a Trance of Laughter in Little Essays Toward Truth.

Crowley places a good deal of emphasis on this particular trance, one which he calls the Vision of the Universal Joke, stating that it is central to the career of the adept.

He first compares the adept, and perhaps by extension the average person, to a victim of war or execution, and then, interestingly enough, a child playing:

“In this Trance he accepts fully the Formula of Osiris, and in the act transcends it; the spear of the Centurion passes harmlessly through his heart, and the sword of the Executioner strikes idly on his neck. He discovers that the Tragedy of which so many centuries have made such a case is but a farce for children’s pleasure. Punch is knocked down only to get up grinning with his gay “Root-too-too-tit! Here we are again!” Judy, the Beadle, the Hangman and the Devil are merely the companions of his playtime.”

The Formula of Osiris, in Crowley’s thought, corresponds to the aeon of the same name, and conceives of humanity as subject to death, perceiving the universe as being ruled over by a dying god, and dependent on the idea of resurrection as a form of maintenance for the continuation of life. However, in the Vision of the Universal Joke the adept transcends this notion of being subject to the cycle of birth-life-death-resurrection and perceives himself eternal.

Pertinently, Crowley wrote in the The Vision and the Voice (published 1911), “The Thelemite does not ‘suffer death.’ He is eternal and perceives Himself the Universe by virtue of the categories of Life and Death, which are not real but subjective forms of his artistic presentation.”

The universe as pure being, the Yod of Tetragrammaton, is, of course, eternal, and can never die. We as individuals being expressions of that—Alan Watts would describe us as being waves that flow out of and retreat back into the ocean of the cosmos—we can never truly die, for in essence we are one and eternal.

And what can one do, perceiving this, but laugh?

Furthermore, to perceive all sorrow and suffering as the mere blunders of a romp in one’s playpen, to distance oneself from suffering in such a way that it appears to be a necessary component of joy, makes for a grand joke, one whose punchline spans the whole universe.

Crowley wrote:

“So, since (after all) the facts which he thought tragic are real enough, the essence of his solution is that they are not true, as he thought, of himself; they are just one set of phenomena, as interesting and as fatuously impotent to affect him as any other set. His personal grief was due to his passionate insistence on contemplating one insignificant congeries of Events as if it were the sole reality and importance in the infinite mass of Manifestation.”

This reminds me of Buddhism, in a certain way: to distance suffering from the notion of self, to regard oneself as not harmed by suffering, is in essence to regard the self as either aloof to the extent that it is beyond conditioned reality, and therefore unconditioned, or non-existent, and therefore one with the Absolute itself. Compare the concept of adi-Buddha, important in the Vajrayana tradition especially.

It furthermore reminds me of Stoicism, an ancient Greco-Roman philosophical tradition which teaches indifference to suffering and the pursuit of virtue.

“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been,” wrote Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius in his diary, what would become a famous work known as the Meditations.

His Meditations also provides this wisdom:

“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not “This is misfortune,” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.””

Indeed, much of suffering—at least emotional suffering—has to do with perspective and the way we think. That’s why, as I have experienced, many psychologists and therapists practice cognitive behavioral therapy as a form of intervention. This is a practice which attempts to alter one’s cognitive biases and distortions in order to mould the patterns taken on by thought processes so that they become healthy and stable.

Anyway, Crowley continues:

“It is thus that the Perception of the Universal Joke leads directly to the Understanding of the Idea of Self as conterminous with the Universe, and at the same time one with it, creator of it, and aloof from it; which Triune State is, as is well known, one of the most necessary stages of Samadhi.”

Observe this trinity of self: self as unified with the universe, self as creator of the universe, and self as transcending the universe.

First of all, if one’s self is the universe, and the universe itself contains both all suffering and all joy (as it contains all conscious beings capable of experiencing such states), how can it truly suffer? (It is, after all, an unintelligent universe, as far as we can tell, and one in some state of equilibrium.)

Secondly, if self creates the universe, it is necessarily the maintainer of it, and has power over it. How can that which has power over a thing allow that thing to harm it?

Lastly, if self transcends the universe, it is beyond the conditions which cause suffering in the first place.

This all makes me think of aloofness or indifference, that the aspirant needs to grasp a kind of uncaring attitude in order to move beyond the throes of pain and suffering so entrenched in our world. And, indeed, Crowley writes of a Trance of Indifference:

“The state of mind which is characterised by Indifference is commonly called Trance, but the misnomer is unfortunate. It is, in fact, in a sense the precise contrary of a Trance; for Trance usually implies Samadhi, and this state specifically excludes any such occurrence. That implies a uniting, and thus a willed dissociation…

The general idea of the state is that the mind should react automatically to each and every impression: “It does not matter whether the Event be ay or nay.” Blavatsky observes that the feeling is at least tinged with disgust. But this is an error; such a state is imperfect. There should, on the contrary, be a quite definite joy, not in the impression itself but in being indifferent to it. This joy springs doubtless from the sense of power involved; but that is again an imperfection; one should rather rejoice in the cognizance of the ultimate truth that “existence is pure joy,” not in any feeling more immediate.”

The Vision of the Universal Joke is samadhic in nature, according to Crowley, and he states in Little Essays that the Trance of Indifference is inferior to a state of samadhi, taking less technical skill to achieve. However, he notes it is not without merit, as, as we read, it leads to joy. Yet the trances, while they free us from suffering to some extent or another, are definitely different in character.

The Vision of the Universal Joke, for one, relies on the aspirant identifying the self with a transcendent state unified with and yet beyond the universe, and at the same time the generator of the universe, essentially making self a panentheistic God.

This differs from the Trance of Indifference, which relies on analyzing phenomena in a way that they are not given value. That is to say, value judgments are stopped altogether.

A good practice for achieving this end may be Crowley’s Class D Liber Jugorum, described as “An instruction for the control of speech, action, and thought.”

Perhaps more difficult, but still useful, may be Liber Turris vel Domus Dei, described as “An instruction for attainment by the direct destruction of thoughts as they arise in the mind.”

Also consider the Trance of Beatitude, or the Beatific Vision, a state in which beauty is perceived in all things. There are two forms of this vision, according to Crowley: one form, the lower, pertains to Tiphereth, and the other, higher vision pertains to Kether, and the grade of Ipsissimus. However, Crowley states that the higher form of this vision has “never been described in detail,” and he instead focuses on the lower form.

Crowley wrote:

“Let us then occupy ourselves with the lower form of this Vision (so called; it is not technically a Vision at all) which pertains to Tiphareth, and is thus the natural grace of the Minor Adept. It may be said at once that those who have attained to higher grades, especially those above the Abyss, can hardly return to this Vision. For it implies a certain innocence, a certain defect of Understanding which is not possible to a Master of the Temple. Again, the Grades of Exempt and Major Adept are too energetic to admit of the balanced quietude of this state.

Only in the centre of the Tree of Life, only in the self-poised security of the Solar Axis, can we expect to find the steady indifference to Event which is the basis of the Trance, and that Ontogenous radiance which tinges it with Rose and Gold.”

Indeed, we know that Tiphereth is the heart of the Tree of Life, its center corresponding to the Sun in its effulgence. And Tiphereth, of course, means “beauty.” Yet Tiphereth is not the crown of the Tree, and so it cannot represent full attainment and understanding, as exalted of a state as it provides.

“In fact, it may be surmised that the Vision arises not from any given action but rather from a subtle suspension of action,” Crowley goes on. “The conflict of events has ended happily in a state of serenely perfect balance, in which, though energy continues to manifest, its issues have become without significance. We may compare the condition with the return of health of a fever-stricken man. The alternation of pyrexia and subnormal temperatures has subsided; he forgets gradually to consult the thermometer at the accustomed intervals, become absorbed instinctively in his regular pursuits. At the same time he is not longer aware of the hot and cold spells, but half consciously of the quiet glow of health. Similarly in this vision all conscious magical effort ceases, although the practices are continued with all customary diligence, and the whole of the Adepts’s impressions, internal as external, are suffused with the glow of beauty and delight. The state is in many respects closely akin to that sought by the smoker of opium; but it is natural and requires no artificial regulation.”

Tiphereth being located in the middle pillar of the Tree of Life, it is balanced in a way that the sephiroth on the pillars of mercy and severity are not. It is also at the center of the tree, and from it branches a number of paths connecting a number of sephiroth. It thus maintains a state of equilibrium and openness that the other sephiroth don’t. It seems that staying in this consciousness of equilibrium, the aspirant or adept eases into a state of routine joy, perceiving beauty in all things, working their way through life and routine with the least of conscious effort.

I think, reading this, of the Taoist concept of wu wei, or effortless action, action which flows without resistance—action that exists in harmony with the way of things and nature itself. (That is, in harmony with the Tao.) This analysis makes sense, as the Tao, according to the tables of Liber 777, flows from Kether, which connects along the path of Gimel directly to Tiphereth.

Lastly, let’s take a look at what Crowley writes of what he calls the Trance of Wonder:

“A little more than kin, and less than kind” are the Trance of Sorrow, and the Vision of the Machinery of the Universe; this latter being the technical aspect of the Apprehension of the Law of Change, which is also a Trance of the same order as that of Sorrow. Now one mode of victory over all these is the Trance of Indifference, in which one stands aloof from the whole matter; but it is only one mode, and (in the generally known form) full of falsehood and imperfection. For to stand aloof is to affirm duality, which is itself the root of Sorrow. To obtain the highest one must unite oneself with all things, partake of all as a true Sacrament. And this motion leads to the Trance of Wonder.”

Indeed, to be indifferent to something is still to say, in effect, “I am separate from this thing,” and as we know, duality is the basis of suffering—for if there is self and other, there is a self to suffer because of that other. Yet if self becomes one with other, there is no self to suffer and no other to cause suffering.

“The Trance of Wonder arises naturally—it is the first movement of the mind—from the final phrase of the Oath of a Master of the Temple, “I will interpret every phenomenon as a particular dealing of God with my soul,”” wrote Crowley. “For, immediately the Understanding illuminates the darkness of knowledge, every fact appears in its true guise miraculous.

It is so: then, how marvellous that it should so be!”

I have sometimes, in the past especially, had moments when I found myself marvelling at the complex intricacies of everything, the very fact that all things are so interdependent and that the universe is so vast and that yet, at the same time, everything breaks down into something so infinitesimal. In those moments the whole of the cosmos appeared to be incredible. I wonder now, reading Crowley’s description of this trance, whether I was marvelling at the world or really, ultimately amazed at myself.

Because, after all, what’s the difference?

And, if everything is awe-inspiring, and oneself is no different than this awe and the world that begets it, what other response can spring forth but an eagerness to partake in the very sacrament of existence, to adventure into the endless and incredible universe, the jeweled palace of space and time?

Trances and meditations, contemplations and methods of achieving joy—mystics and hierophants both alive and long gone have told us of these things. But as much as we may doubt them or their efforts, there’s no real way to know whether they’re right or wrong without trying our hand at their ways. I will be the first to admit that I’m easily distracted, disorganized, sporadic, and lazy: it’s difficult for me to form a routine. But every day I wake up and remind myself of the need to accomplish the Great Work, and with that intent in my heart I go through life with the aspiration toward joy and strength. As much as I’ve suffered in my life, as much as day to day toils have thrashed me and allowed me to trash myself, I know there is a way out and through the all-too-real abyss of emotional turmoil and into a higher life characterized by beauty and wonder and love and joy and solemn indifference to the impermanent woes of that too often befall us. 

Ideally, the Thelemite is to be filled with joy, alive and “Thrill with the joy of life and death!” (Liber AL 2:66.) In this essay we’ve read about some of the states which lead to such thrill and joy—though, of course, what’s left is the long, hard road to mould ourselves into beings capable of perceiving this joy in ourselves and in the world, despite the suffering which in reality plagues our universe.

We may wander the gray land of the Qliphoth, caught up in our own pain and confusion. However, as much dross as we contain, we may do away with it and see a diamond mind shine through. As much lead as we are we may transmute ourselves into pure gold.

Now none of this is a call for Thelemites to be indifferent to the pain of others: we ought to work to free others from the tyranny which thwarts their wills to life and joy and beauty. However, we can work compassion in this world while not allowing the sting of life to be quite so potent that it strikes us down. We can stand tall and stalwart against the battering waves of life, and learn joy despite the agony which surrounds us.

Perhaps I’m a fool, and you may call me one if you like. Yet I really believe one can learn true happiness, real ecstasy, even in Hell. The power and ingenuity of the human spirit promises it. The true will must lead to it. Darkness surrounds us but, with the right sort of eyes, one can see that the universe is pure light, and that the effulgence of the Unknown Crown shines through all shadow and doubt and pain, eternally and everywhere.

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5 thoughts on “Learning the Joy of Existence in Thelema

  1. “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.” ~ Viktor Frankl

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