Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
This article represents an attempt to interpret Thelema as a coherent path of spiritual liberation. This reconstruction resolves two problems of Thelema interpretation, what I have called the Coherence Problem and the Liberation Problem. I also believe it is consistent with how Crowley himself viewed his work.
The main interpretive method I advocate is what I call the Essentialist Method. I illustrate it through a critique of the two most common methods of Thelema interpretation which I call the Minimalist Method and the Connect-the-Dots Method. In short, I show that problems in Thelema interpretation can only be resolved when we understand that doing one’s will is identical with loving Nuit. Thelema is essentially a path of erotic liberation.
I finish by suggesting additional areas of Crowley’s work this line of interpretation can be carried into and how to use it to improvise new forms of Thelemic magick consistent with its core doctrines.
Two Problems of Thelema Interpretation
Problem One: Coherence
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” (DWTW) is the essence of Thelema. But how does this idea of true will relate to all the other ideas and practices that show up in Crowley’s voluminous writings and which form the Thelemic spiritual tradition?
For example, what’s the connection between doing ceremonial magick and doing your will? True will is often understood as one’s purpose in life or what is natural to them. To respect someone’s true will is to respect their autonomy and who they are. Yet it has been understood in secular societies for over two centuries that issues of the good life are ultimately private affairs, and that autonomy is a moral and legal, not a religious or spiritual category. You don’t need ceremonial magick—or any kind of spirituality—to understand or respect individual purpose or autonomy. If this tradition is really about finding your purpose or autonomy, telling someone to study 777, to do a pentagram ritual, or to even do Resh is neither here nor there.
Consider the same issue from the other side: If you’re a spiritual practitioner, what exactly does it add to your spiritual path or self-understanding to also believe that each person has a unique purpose in life which should be discovered or respected? Is a voodoo practitioner, a Goetic magician, a Tibetan monk, or an Appalachian folk magic practitioner somehow less effective for not also accepting this ethical framework? It’s not only unclear what such ideas add to a spiritual practice; it’s condescending to view practitioners in other traditions as incomplete versions of ourselves.
Or let’s say you’re a member of OTO. What’s the connection between Liber XV and doing your will? How exactly is taking communion going to help you find your path in life? Wouldn’t you serve that goal better by working with a career counselor? How are the ordeals of OTO initiations supposed to help you meet this goal? There’s no apparent connection at all between having a clear sense of purpose in life and anything initiatory, esoteric, magical, or spiritual.
Problem Two: Liberation
Then there’s the additional problem of how to interpret Crowley’s claim that doing one’s will resolves not only all philosophical problems but all of life’s problems in general. While knowing one’s purpose in life and pursuing it might resolve the question of how to utilize your time, energy, and other resources in more or less rewarding ways, it’s not clear why it would have any impact on other perennial spiritual problems.
For instance, how is knowing your will supposed to address the suffering we all must experience? How does it help you when you get sick or when a loved one dies? How is it even going to help you when you’re late for an appointment and are stuck in traffic?
Having a strong subjective sense of purpose in life is what psychologist Abraham Maslow identified as an aspect of self-actualization. It occurs at the pinnacle of his famous hierarchy of needs. Self-actualization is achievable when subordinate needs such as food, water, safety, a sense of belonging, love, and esteem are met. If Thelema is only applicable once these subordinate needs are met, then that seems to belie Crowley’s claim that finding your true will is the answer to all of life’s problems, or that Thelema is suited to replace Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or other spiritual paths as the religion of the “New Aeon”. It means Thelema is not an answer to most people’s problems but rather an accessory to one’s lifestyle after most of the actual problems have been resolved by other, non-spiritual means.
Unfortunately the most common methods of interpreting Thelema don’t do a lot to help resolve either of these problems.
The Most Common Methods of Interpretation
The Minimalist Approach
One of the common methods of interpreting Thelema is to approach it from a minimalist perspective, treating DWTW not only as the essence of Thelema but also as completely exhausting the meaning of Thelema. Thelema is about being your own boss, living life on your own terms, living according to your own nature or purpose, end of story.
If it’s not your will to do magick or have any spiritual practice at all—if those things just don’t appeal to you—then you don’t have to do them. All that matters is that you do what is right for you.
If someone wants to ignore everything Crowley ever wrote or suggested—even if they want to do the exact opposite of what Crowley said to do—they are entitled to do that and still call themselves a Thelemite, so long as they are living in accordance with their own nature and purpose.
From this perspective, you can be a pagan, a tantrika, a ceremonial magician, a shaman, a witch, a Christian, a nihilist, or an atheist materialist. None of that necessarily has any bearing on whether you’re a Thelemite, since all that’s required to be a Thelemite is that you accept DWTW.
How one relates to the rest of what Crowley wrote really depends upon what is good for them personally. If some idea or practice appeals to you, if it feels authentic to who you are, then you should do it; if not, then don’t.
Because so much of this approach depends upon authentic self-expression, this path tends to treat spirituality (or lack thereof) as an entirely personal, private matter. For that reason, this approach tends to fit comfortably with those already holding secular humanist (i.e., liberal or libertarian) political positions. It also puts them in a comfortable position to deal with Crowley’s pronouncements which were illiberal, aristocratic, social darwinist, sexist, or racist, since really the only portion of Crowley’s work which matters is the idea that everyone does their own true will.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t resolve our problems so much as restate them in slightly different terms.
The minimalist approach does not help us answer the coherence problem. It’s not able to answer what use ceremonial magick, OTO initiations, Liber XV celebrations, or any of the practices typically associated with the Thelemic spiritual tradition would be for finding and doing one’s will.
Instead the minimalist approach answers a different question: “Do I have to do X, Y, or Z to call myself a Thelemite?” But the answer to that is clearly “no”. No one is going to issue you a ticket or a court summons for using the word “Thelema” a certain way. At most someone will just disagree with you.
Furthermore the minimalist approach is not able to resolve the liberation problem. It can’t make sense of Crowley’s claim that finding and doing your will resolves all of life’s spiritual and philosophical problems. This is because the minimalist approach breathes and exhales the rarefied air of self-actualization. If it began to address problems lower on the hierarchy of needs—problems shared by all of us by virtue of being human beings—then it would have to abandon its exclusively subjective orientation and begin making statements about what is typically good for everyone. But this is precisely what the advocate of the minimalist approach is unwilling to do.
These problems become even more conspicuous when attempting to explain Thelema to outsiders or beginners. Most of the beginner books on Thelema are basically lists of facts and practices. There’s a brief overview of who Crowley was and some of the things he did. There’s mention of the reception of the Book of the Law and DWTW. There’s a list of rituals or meditations to do. There’s mention of the two occult orders he established.
What’s missing is any sense of the intelligibility of the whole. No clear, compelling explanation is offered for why these specific practices and approaches compose the tradition, how they serve the realization of its central organizing principle, or how the application of that principle is intended to fulfill Crowley’s intention that it solve all perennial life problems. The result is that such books end up targeting occultists who, for whatever reason, have become interested in Crowley. It’s a microscopically small demographic.
But the bigger problem is that there aren’t any “non-beginner” books or essays that attempt to solve these problems, either. Instead of trying to solve these problems of coherence and liberation, “intermediate” or “advanced” presentations of Thelema take what I call the connect-the-dots approach, instead.
The Connect-the-Dots Approach
The connect-the-dots method of interpretation assumes there is more to Thelema than merely living a life of purpose. Those who use this method assume many of Crowley’s teachings were hidden or encoded within esoteric symbolism, and that it is the task of the reader to decode those messages. To decode them you need to take what you’re reading and connect it with or reflect it off other concepts either in Crowley’s own writings or in other traditions. This implies that if you really want to understand Crowley, you need to read a lot of Crowley and a lot of works from these other traditions.
For example if you really want to understand what Crowley was trying to teach in A∴A∴, you’ve got to spend a lot of time mastering the entire corpus of Golden Dawn initiation and practice, since that’s what Crowley’s starting point was. Or if you want to understand what figures like Horus, Hoor-paar-kraat, Ra, and Set signify in Crowley’s spirituality, you need to dig into Egyptian mythology and religion—maybe to the point of learning to read Coptic and hieroglyphs.
Likewise to really get what’s happening in Liber XV, you need to understand Valentinian Gnosticism. Only then can you see that the Deacon is really the Demiurge, and when the congregants take communion, they’re really joining the pleroma. Or maybe you need to understand Tantra to get it, since the Priest and Priestess are just Shiva and Shakti. Or perhaps you’ll only understand the true meaning of Liber XV only after you’re IX° in OTO.
And if you’re an OTO initiate, just wait until you see how the initiation rituals open up once you’ve studied all of the Ancient and Primitive Rite! You’ll never get to unsee the truth once you’ve read through the, uh, Patriarch of the Planispheres degree.
Whatever your orientation, there’s always going to be something else you need to understand first before the ritual or text is open to you. This ostensibly fosters open-mindedness and creates latitude for many interpretations. It also in many cases implies that no one can really claim to adequately understand the spiritual path they’re following, leaving ultimate determination of the rectitude of Church policies in the hands of authorities who presumably know better.
The signature move within the connect-the-dots game is to say one thing “refers to” or “corresponds with” something else. For instance someone might say “The pillars refer to the pillars in Freemasonry” or “The altar is 44 inches high, because 44 corresponds with blood.” Or in the Lovers card, Cupid “refers to” the Holy Guardian Angel.
Those who use this method see themselves as being more sophisticated than those who follow the minimalist approach. And in a certain sense that’s true. One has to at least have intellectual curiosity to go down any of these rabbit holes.
It’s also undoubtedly true that Crowley communicates using symbol sets from the occult tradition. You’re not going to get very far reading Crowley if you don’t memorize the Hebrew alphabet and some of its correspondences, especially as they relate to the tarot. Having that information unlocks dimensions of Crowley’s teachings that are difficult to get otherwise.
All that being said, the connect-the-dots approach is fatally flawed for four reasons:
- Its method is—in principle—incapable of generating any interpretation, good or bad, on its own.
- Its assumption that Crowley encoded his essential teachings is wrong.
- Its assumption that other traditions are able to shed light on those essential teachings is wrong.
- At the end of the day, the connect-the-dots approach is purely subjective.
Connect-the-Dots Cannot Generate an Interpretation
By definition, to offer an interpretation of something is to offer an explanation of it. Interpretations don’t exist to tell someone what something means in some sort of abstract, subjective sense. It’s not like staring at a painting or seeing a movie and having a feeling. An interpretation should explain why something exists, why something exists in the way that it does, or what the implications are of its existence.
The problem with “referring” or “corresponding” things is that it only presents the superficial appearance of explanation. Saying the number 44 “corresponds with” or “refers to” blood on its own tells us absolutely nothing about why the altar is 44 inches high. In order to answer why the altar is 44 inches high, you also have to show how it being that height serves the ultimate purpose of the ritual.
To offer an explanation for something requires more than connecting concepts laterally. Knowing that 44 refers to blood might be necessary for offering an explanation, but it’s not sufficient. To offer an explanation, concepts also need to be linked together hierarchically. Each part has to be linked together in such a way to show how it serves the ultimate purpose of the whole. That’s just what it means to explain something. Once you understand how those parts serve the whole, then you understand the thing.
If you’ve ever had to sit through an occult lecture or just got cornered by someone at an event, and despite the apparent brilliance of the speaker, you came away completely bewildered, understanding less than when you went in, it’s because they probably played connect-the-dots. You may have just listened to someone who is very good at reasoning by analogy, but they lack the ability (at least in this domain) to reason linearly or hierarchically, and so they probably don’t really understand the subject they’re talking about—at least not as well as they think they do.
The problem with the connect-the-dots approach isn’t that it creates wrong interpretations. The problem is that it doesn’t create interpretations at all. In other words its conclusions don’t even rise to the level of being wrong.
So if we encounter something in Crowley’s writings or rituals that is encoded in occult symbols, the proper method of decoding that message is not to just refer to something else. We want to connect concepts hierarchically, not just laterally. We don’t just want to know that the altar refers in some sense to blood; we also want to know why Crowley encoded blood into the altar. We want to know the precise significance of blood for the execution of this ritual. That’s where the actual insight and understanding are to be found.
Connect-the-Dots is Wrong about the Essential Teachings
If any interpretative framework for Thelema relies upon connecting concepts hierarchically, then everything hinges upon our ability to grasp first principles, since it is by virtue of being able to connect a concept or a symbol to a first principle that we’re able to understand and explain it.. But if we can’t grasp those first principles—either because they’re ineffable or they themselves are encoded in some language we can’t decipher—then how can we ever create an interpretation let alone know it’s valid?
The assumption of the connect-the-dots approach is that the essentials are hidden or encoded. Thelema is ultimately a mystery religion. The deep teachings are only to be found either through direct experience of a mystical variety (in which case they cannot be communicated), or they can only be grasped through reading tons of Crowley and learning to connect all the dots in his teachings.
Usually both premises are assumed, even though they often contradict one another. If it’s ultimately a mystery, then what is the erudition for? If it can only be understood through scholarship, then what’s the point of mystical experience?
But the main problem is that it seems to contradict what Crowley himself said about his work. Crowley was of the opinion that he was teaching one thing to mankind, not several let alone a hundred encoded things.
Based on the sheer volume of Crowley’s writings, one can be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Crowley had a ton of things he was trying to teach. And yet he always maintained not only that he had one teaching but that he himself was identified with that one teaching. That one teaching was θέλημα, will.
If we’re going to take Crowley’s claim about himself seriously—and I think we should at least try to—then the key to interpreting everything else Crowley was teaching doesn’t itself have to be decoded. It’s in plain view. We don’t have to discover it after a long process of erudition or mystical experience. It’s to be found at the beginning, not the end of the journey.
This implies that our task as interpreters is to connect everything else we encounter in the teachings and the practices back to this central concept. And we’re not connecting laterally; we’re connecting hierarchically. Practices, teachings, rituals, symbolism, etc., are explained by showing how they serve to bring a person to doing their will or how they clarify the way to finding that will.
The connection might not be a direct or a simple one. To return to the previous example, there’s no single, straight line to connect the altar being 44 inches high with doing one’s will. But once you realize that blood symbolizes joy, and that Crowley thought it was impossible to consistently do your will without relinquishing control over how much joy you’re going to get out of life, you can then see that the blood the Priest sacrifices on the altar is a necessary step in his effort to perfect his will.
Additionally, you’re now in a position to understand why it is that joy is returned to him at the end of the ritual, no longer as his joy, but rather the joy of the Earth. The initial sacrifice was merely apparent. All he gave up was the illusion of ownership or control. In exchange for these weak joys, he receives the bounty of Earth itself.
We not only have coherence; we have an idea of why someone would want to be part of the ritual in the first place.
That’s what an insight into Crowley looks and feels like.
Connect-the-Dots is wrong about how Thelema relates to other traditions
Crowley had a voracious appetite for all things spiritual. His writings evince deep interest in alchemy, Egyptian religion, Hermetism, Neoplatonism, astrology, tarot, Goetia, Enochian magic, Buddhism, yoga, Freemasonry, phallicism, Qabalah—the list goes on and on.
Given the wide interest he had and how many symbols and ideas from these traditions he incorporated into Thelema, one can be forgiven for thinking either that engagement with these traditions sheds light on Thelemic teachings or that thorough knowledge of them is necessary to truly understand Thelemic teachings. But both of these assumptions are wrong.
If you really want to understand Thoth tarot or the path of return in A∴A∴, the answers are not to be found in the Pyramid Texts, Eliphas Levi, the Golden Dawn, or some stone knife used 3,000 years ago. The answers are to be found in the Book of the Law.
If you want to understand OTO initiation rituals or teachings, the answers are not to be found in craft masonry, Memphis and Mizraim, King James Bible, history of the Templars, yogic theories of amrita, Cagliosto, S.R.I.A., or Paracelsus. The answers are to be found in the Book of the Law.
If you want insight into Liber XV, the answers are not to be found in the Roman Rite, Valentinian Gnosticism, the Golden Dawn Neophyte ritual, an episode in the life of Ludovicus Rex Bavariae, or even in the IX° documents. The answers are to be found in the Book of the Law.
The answer is ultimately always in the Book of the Law—or some other document like The Vision and the Voice or “Energized Enthusiasm” that expresses those same ideas in a different context.
The reason for this is simple. While Crowley may have incorporated all sorts of symbols and ideas from religion and philosophy into Thelema, he never did so without “Crowleyizing” them first.
Almost anyone who has spent any serious amount of time with Crowley grasps this at least on an intuitive level, but very few people are able to explain precisely what it means to Crowleyize something.
Crowley was mostly trying to show people how to overcome their inhibitions so they can transcend themselves and experience ecstasy. He saw people as being divided against themselves and against the world by arbitrary distinctions and moral categories. He thought that if people could overcome their fear, shame, disgust, and preconditioned appetites, they could leave themselves behind and live ecstatic, more fulfilling lives. This is largely what’s at stake in his drive to overcome division through the unity and annihilation of opposites. To “Crowleyize” something means to fit it to that purpose of self-abandonment through transgression. The Book of the Law contains the most important expression of that idea for Crowley.
To take one conspicuous example, Crowley often communicates using symbols from Qabalah. You’re not going to get very far reading Crowley without understanding how he uses Qabalah. But everything depends on how the relationship is understood.
You need to understand Qabalah to understand Crowley in the same way you would need to know Spanish to read Borges if there were no English translations available. If you know Spanish, you can read Borges and see how he made the language his own. Likewise, if you know a bit about Qabalah, you can see how Crowley made that tradition serve his own purpose. Crowley sees in the Tree of Life a model for the cancellation and overcoming of opposites which is simultaneously a path of self-transcendence toward AIN or Nothingness. He uses it to represent a progressive obliteration of separateness.
Of course there’s grounds for this in Qabalah. Crowley isn’t making this up out of whole cloth. But he’s taking Qabalah and wrapping it around an agenda which is all his own, thereby modifying the original teaching in the process. No amount of study of Sepher Yetzirah will give you that agenda, but the Book of the Law and related texts will.
Connect-the-Dots is Ultimately Subjective
The connect-the-dots temptation is to branch out. It’s to do lots of research and create giant constellations of symbolic associations. The problem is that what forms a constellation is ultimately very subjective. I look up at the winter sky, and I see Orion. Egyptians saw a form of Osiris. The Rig Veda calls it a deer.
There’s no clear criteria for what counts as a relevant connection or even what counts as a dot. So you end up with these sprawling accounts of what the path of Mem really means, but there’s never any feeling of the rubber hitting the road. This is just the subjectivism of the minimalist approach but now with more footnotes, more cross references, more clever connections, and in a lot of cases more bullshit.
When push comes to shove, someone will defend their theory by saying, “It works for me,” or something similar. In and of itself that’s not a problem. It’s also not an explanation.
An Alternative: The Essentialist Approach
My proposed alternative to the Minimalist and Connect-the-Dots approaches is what I call the Essentialist Approach. I’ve been building it up dialectically through my critique thus far, but here’s the summary statement of it.
Instead of treating what Crowley says as clues to unlocking a secret, occulted message, do the exact opposite. Start with his essential teaching, and treat everything you encounter as an expression of that underlying, invariant idea.
In other words we’re going to connect dots, but we’re not going to make constellations. We’re not going to constantly branch outward. We’re going to always draw a line back inward to the same core point.
You want to draw a cone, not a constellation.
We’re not just drawing lateral connections between ideas anymore. We’re not creating giant webs of “references” or “correspondences”. We’re thinking hierarchically. By connecting a peripheral idea to a central idea, we’re explaining the peripheral idea. We’re offering an actual interpretation instead of just a subjective impression.
I agree with the Minimalist Approach insofar as I think DWTW is that main, essential point that everything has to go back to. But I differ in two respects:
- My interpretation of the first principle, DWTW, is that it means more than simply calling your own shots in life. I don’t think the Minimalist version of DWTW is what Crowley intended, and that’s why the Minimalist DWTW is not able to solve the Liberation Problem.
- I don’t view the other aspects of Crowley’s spirituality as completely optional. Connecting them with the central principle of DWTW shows they are as necessary to Thelema as DWTW itself. This is not going to be true of everything Crowley ever said or did to the same degree, but in my view, Thelema must be something more complex than the Minimalist Approach suggests in order to solve the Coherence Problem.
Now I’ll deal with each problem in turn.
Solving the Liberation Problem
It just might be time for the Thelemic subculture to face a hard truth, which is that the way we most commonly define DWTW only bears a slight resemblance to what the Book of the Law says or what Crowley was trying to teach.
The idea that it’s up to each individual (especially an individual of means) to decide for themselves how to live their lives wasn’t exactly news in Crowley’s time, and it’s definitely not news now. It’s arguably the premise of every moral philosophy from Plato’s down to the present.
You have to ask yourself: Did Crowley master exotic trances, experience magical visions, establish occult orders, write all these books, rituals, and plays, bankrupt himself, and eat his girlfriend’s shit just to tell people what every other moral philosopher has said?
If anything it’s more likely he was trying to teach people the opposite.
Maybe the reason DWTW doesn’t seem to solve all these problems Crowley said it solves is because our concept of it isn’t as radical or powerful as his was. He clearly saw more than what we see in the Book of the Law.
When Crowley described the central teaching of the Book of the Law, he said it (a) explained the universe and (b) instructed each person to realize their own absolute God-head in all experiences. Insight (a) is the key to Thelemic magick and the answer to the coherence problem, and (b) is the key to Thelemic liberation.
Crowley was of the opinion that the manifest universe is the result of the interaction of two principles: the principle of consciousness or the point of view, represented by the god Hadit, and the principle of the sum total of all possible experiences, represented by the goddess Nuit. Their ecstatic, orgasmic union gives rise to what we experience.
You think you live in a world of tables, chairs, subatomic particles, fundamental forces, and Wednesdays. You’re wrong. According to Crowley you live in a world of orgasms. You live in a world of joys. You can’t see that because of all these inhibitions and arbitrary conceptual and moral distinctions you walk around with. That’s why you “hurt”.
The solution to all of this—and according to Crowley the main prescription of the Book of the Law—was to realize your own godhead in every experience. It’s to be Hadit. (IAO131 has developed this theme, which he refers to as the primary act of magick.) It’s to learn to stop making any distinctions of good/better/best and to see everything that arises as just another instance of Nuit, your beloved.
This is why the usual interpretation of DWTW as finding your authentic path in life, while not entirely wrong, is incomplete.
Whatever doing your true will is, it has to include the unconditional love of Nuit—which is to say, the unconditional affirmation of change.
The pure will, the perfected will, is unassuaged of purpose and delivered from the lust of result. If your willing is anything less—if the ritual be not ever unto Nuit—then you can expect the direful judgment of Ra-Hoor-Khuit.
You can also expect virtually nothing else in Thelema to make any sense.
On the other hand, if you see them as necessarily connected—if you see the masculine Hadit energy of willing (magick) perfectly balanced with the eternal loving of the goddess (mysticism)—then everything makes sense.
The reason doing your will is the solution to all of life’s problems is because when you are doing your will, one unconditionally affirms the result, whatever it is. As Crowley puts it, you are indifferent to circumstance. It doesn’t matter if the act is a success or failure in the conventional sense. Whatever arises is more Nuit and therefore just another reason to be joyful.
This is why Crowley stresses nobility and related virtues when he talks about doing one’s will. Doing your will can mean a lot of things, but it never includes acting like a little bitch when you don’t get what you want.
Here’s another way of looking at it: Both the Buddha and Crowley believed that sorrow in life comes from seeking to control a reality which is subject to conditions beyond your will and which therefore is impermanent and in constant change. Both believed that the solution is to stop grasping or craving. For Buddha, the solution is the unconditional rejection of conditioned reality and the embrace of the unconditioned (nibbana). For Crowley, another solution is possible: unconditional acceptance of conditioned reality and open-hearted embrace of every change.
You’re either all in, or you’re all out. Either one works. Just don’t stand in the middle.
If you stand in the middle, you’re now in the position of trying to cut a course through life that seeks pleasure and avoids pain. You’re necessarily in a position of attempting to control outcomes which, in principle, can never be fully guaranteed. This requires the subjugation of life to instrumental rationality. It means erecting a wall around oneself that lets in pleasure and keeps out pain. It means imposing one’s will on reality.
Crowley had a word he used to describe this attitude toward life. He called it evil. As far as I can tell, he never used that word except in this very precise, technical sense.
He also had a name for those who adhered to this path in life. He called them Black Brothers or Left-Hand Path adherents.
The opposite of being a Black Brother—and therefore the personification of goodness or holiness in Thelema—is to be a Saint.
Rather than imposing their wills on reality, rather than trying to control how much life or joy accrues to them, the Saints have turned that control over to the universe itself.
Rather than asserting their subjectivity, the Saint has sacrificed that subjectivity in erotic union with Babalon. Their sense of separateness has been undone through love, and as a result, they are now free. (Manon Hedenborg White has identified this as a central theme of Crowley’s spirituality and has used it to develop an interpretation of Babalon in her book, The Eloquent Blood: The Goddess Babalon and the Construction of Femininities in Western Esotericism.)
Thelema as Crowley taught it was not ultimately about my will, my choice, my beliefs, my authentic self-expression, my subjectivity, my Angel, my spiritual experiences, my life choices, my path in life, my morals, my politics, my this-that-or-the-other-thing.
It was about the unbinding of all of that through union with the divine feminine.
Thelema makes perfect sense as a path of liberation—if and only if you put Babalon at the center of it. (Or Nuit or Pan or other figures that express cognate ideas.)
On the other hand, if you put yourself at the center, in the uncompromising fashion which Crowley states it is your duty as a Thelemite to do, then you must accept that you are God, and that every change that arises in your experience is the result of your will and therefore ought to be affirmed. The result is the same. You will lose all in that hour.
But if you attempt to put yourself at the center with an impure heart, saying this change is good, but that change is bad, then you are not claiming your divine inheritance. You are not doing your will but instead walking what Crowley called the Left-Hand Path.
Solving the Coherence Problem
The coherence problem is easy to solve now that we have a better idea of what Crowley meant by DWTW. The reason you do magick is because Crowley counted as magick any spiritual practice which brings you further down the path which ends with you pouring out all of your blood into the chalice of Our Lady. It’s whatever brings you one step closer to erotic self-transcendence. That’s why Crowley equates magick with love under will.
One of Crowley’s original insights was that ceremonial magick is a kind of yoga of the west, and done a certain way it leads to samadhi.
He didn’t mean the kind of magick where you dress up as a paper towel and draw shapes in the air while mispronouncing Hebrew. He meant working yourself up into a frenzy that carries you out and away from yourself and into union with God. He tended to gloss this as “enflaming thyself in prayer.”
This could be done by chanting the spirit’s name like a mantra. It could be done by rocking back and forth. It could be done by singing. It could be aided greatly by hashish. And eventually he realized it could be done by fucking. Once he did, that became his preferred method for the rest of his life.
Crowley described the pinnacle of the Thelemic spiritual path—the state of one’s self having been erotically undone—as being like “samadhi on everything.” By this he did not mean one goes around constantly in a trance state. In fact he was careful to differentiate it from any of the trance states, preferring to describe it as a baseline shift in one’s normal walking around experience.
But the trances are useful, because they are acute, peak experiences which are akin to the final result. Temporarily transcending the self prepares you for the eventual self-abandonment that characterizes Crossing the Abyss.
The spiritual uses to which Crowley put sado-masochism and coprophagy are also comprehensible within this framework. These aren’t just (or even) kinks so much as ways of overcoming inhibitions like shame, disgust, and lust—categories or reflexive judgments which keep one imprisoned within the confines of rational, autonomous subjectivity. These and other magical practices should be seen as methods Crowley devised to “destroy evil” as he says in Liber V vel Reguli.
Similar explanations can be offered for other magical practices Crowley prescribed. For example, the reason we do Liber Resh is twofold. For one thing, it’s nature worship. It’s the adoration of manifest existence in general (which is a necessary component of pure willing) and an adoration of the Sun as the source of light and life in particular.
But at an esoteric level, the Sun is a symbol of unification. It’s male + female, subject + object, Cross + Rose, Hadit + Nuit. It’s a symbol of the individual undivided from their self, and therefore poised to be undivided with the Universe.
Resh is just a way of putting ourselves in conscious contact with a symbol of what it means to realize one’s own absolute god-head—which is the essential prescription of the Book of the Law and the goal of Thelema itself.
The key to Thelemic magick is that it’s a method of modeling the “microcosm” (i.e., your experience) on the “macrocosm” (the dynamic structure of the universe portrayed in the Book of the Law). It’s all one way or another about being Hadit and surrendering in love to Nuit. That’s how Crowley interprets the Great Work. It’s also why you’re not liable to learn a lot about it from reading—for instance—Paracelsus or Levi or any other alchemist or magician. You can go to those other works to learn where Crowley got an idea from, but unless you grasp the essence of Thelema, you’re not going to get what Crowley was trying to do with them.
The purpose of this framing is not to offer a rationalization for everything Crowley said to do. It’s to give any Thelemite the tools to work out for themselves which parts of Crowley’s ideas and practice cohere within a system.
For instance, is it necessary to perform Liber V vel Reguli in order to do your will? Only if you believe Liber V performance is necessary for you to realize your own godhead in relation to Nuit. The point of Thelemic magick is to generate a frenzy or an ecstasy that carries you out of yourself into union with the divine. If spinning around in circles helps with that, go for it. What particular words you say or shapes you draw in the air seem to matter far less than utilizing whatever means are at your disposal to generate the result.
Likewise, we can use this method to generate spiritual practices Crowley himself didn’t think of. For instance, throughout the course of the day, ask yourself, “Dost thou fail? Art thou sorry? Is fear in thine heart?” We know that if the answer to any of these questions is, “Yes,” then we are not being Hadit. We are not occupying our own godhead. We can then feel into ourselves or into the situation and try to figure out what we’re doing or what assumptions we’re operating with that are disconnecting us from our own godhead. This is a good mindfulness practice any practitioner can do at any level of attainment that orients them toward the ultimate goal and in the process leads to more joy.
Opening New Possibilities
My belief is that this method of interpreting Thelema not only resolves questions about the purpose and coherence of Thelema in terms Crowley himself would have agreed with. It also opens many new ways of walking the Thelemic spiritual path than are currently available.
It demonstrates Thelemites are not confined to the belief that they are missing something essential about Thelema if they have not read everything Crowley has written and connected all the dots. Nor are they confined to the belief that they are missing out if they haven’t also studied a dozen or more other traditions.
Nor are they confined to a completely private, incommunicable perspective. Their chosen spiritual path can be applied to all dimensions of life, all experiences, not just issues of self-actualization or authentic self-expression.
My hope is that readers will carry these methods forward into areas I did not touch upon in this article. I encourage them to read some of Crowley’s more obscure works, such as The Vision and the Voice, The Book of Lies, or The Book of Thoth, and discover for themselves the teachings there. The Holy Books should also be easier to interpret in light of the essential theme of erotic liberation.
I encourage OTO initiates to examine for themselves the symbolism of their degree initiations and to see for themselves why Crowley viewed these ceremonies as offering important teachings about life. I encourage them to do the same with Liber XV.
For those who are just beginning to walk the Thelemic spiritual path and are learning basic rituals like the pentagram ritual, Resh, or Will, my hope is that understanding the reason for these practices will help you stick with them and develop discipline.
For those who are further along, my hope is that you can use what I have described here as the essence of Thelemic magick to design your own magical rituals and other spiritual practices.
And finally my hope is that this method opens doors to understanding and applying Thelema that no one has yet conceived, so that all may attain freedom.
As the Law of Liberty is ours:
May our minds be open unto the Light.
May our hearts be centers of Love.
May our bodies be temples of Life.
Love is the law, love under will
Entelecheia is a Thelemite, a member of OTO, and an ordained priest of EGC. His website is http://lapis-mercurii.org/ His mission in life is to offer a frame so that what is hidden spontaneously reveals itself. May he do so without lust of result. Yea, without lust of result.
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