by Soror Madimi
“Man has the right to move as he will on the face of the Earth.”
Last spring, I hiked a week-long section of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Armed with a bag of food, a small tent, a warm sleeping bag, and a few other essentials, I arranged to be dropped off in the middle of Shenandoah National Park. From there, I walked the 66 miles of trail that stood between me and my car.
The Great Work, however one might definite it, is often conceptualized as a journey— usually an uphill journey, perhaps a climb up the proverbial Mountain of Initiation. There are a number of different things that this journey has in common with long-distance hiking, which might be the Great Work’s most common metaphor. While doing all that walking last spring, I had plenty of time to consider the many parallels between the one journey and the other.
It Isn’t Comfortable
I arranged in advance for a shuttle service to take me out to the trailhead. As the date approached, the forecast progressively tilted colder and rainier. The shuttle driver and I struck up a conversation— having mentioned I’m a counselor, he went straight to discussing mental health— but we were interrupted as his phone kept ringing. The calls were from thru-hikers looking for a place for the night to get off the trail. He had to keep telling each of them that his hostel was full. Clearly, it wasn’t going to be the most pleasant evening to be out on my first longer solo trip. But as I hopped out of his SUV and hoisted my pack, the sky was still clear, so I moved quickly to make it to where I’d planned to camp for the first night.
The rain and I made it to the site at about the same time. I scarfed down some instant noodles under the shelter, but the steady, soaking downpour continued on well into the next morning. (I’d enjoyed some whiskey in my tent, which was greatly appreciated). Packing up in the mud was slow. The thru-hikers, who’d been on this same trail since northern Georgia, moved out early like a swift fog, with a practiced skillfulness that I envied. After what felt like hours later, raindrops splattered my glasses as I clumsily wiped off the red clay blowback from the sides of my tent, and rolled it up into a sloppy bundle. And on I went.
Rarely is the process of self-examination demanded by the Great Work one that’s comfortable or neat. Rather, we embark on an initiatory journey and only learn to swim once we’re already in the water. Or we slip during a crossing, and find a way to survive.
The swell from that rainstorm created a couple of hazardous stream crossings the following day, so I was confronted with a choice between comfort (trying to cross barefoot on uneven rocks, obscured by the current) or safety (crossing with boots on). I chose wet feet. And while the next two days of rain weren’t comfortable, on the second afternoon, I was able to hang out my tent and relax for a while. Small comforts, like hot food, a few sips of whiskey, or dry socks, began to take on a new significance. And I found in myself a newfound sense of grit and determination: being in an environment where I was relying only on myself brought a tremendous feeling of freedom.
Attitudes of Family and Friends
The decision to spend nearly a week on the trail, alone and mostly without cell service, wasn’t received enthusiastically by my loved ones. No reassurances about the nature of the region I was traversing, or my careful preparations, reassured them. They were afraid I’d be raped, or attacked by bears, or die out in the middle of nowhere. It made little difference when I pointed out that being in a car wreck on the way home was more likely.
The solitary retirements I have taken over the course of my magical journey haven’t been understood, either. Family and close friends have not always understood why I have made these choices: whether for magical retreats or for backpacking trips. But for both, something in me demanded it, wouldn’t let me rest until I went. Something in my being could no longer tolerate the usual daily grind, and demanded to be brought face-to-face with the raw elements of nature and of my own being, with challenge, even prolonged discomfort— something visceral that my working life (and increasingly social life) behind a screen failed to satisfy.
It was only after I came back— sunburned, filthy, terribly sore, with a total disaster of blisters on my feet— that these same individuals saw the refreshed glow about me, and finally got it. That, or it could’ve been they were just amused at how I was staggering around as the muscles of my legs tried to recover. A lighter pack would have helped, though I used that knowledge for future trips.
Lightening the Load
In the backpacking community, keeping a light load can be carried to all kinds of absurd extremes. Sawed-off toothbrush handles, taking razor blades to extraneous pack straps to shave off a few grams, and endless discussions about what foods offer the densest caloric payoff per ounce—these are all common conversations in the backpacking world. But the overall principle is a wise one: bring only what’s essential.
The same is true for the Great Work. The body has limits to what it can carry, and that encumbrance does not make for a pleasant journey when baggage of all sorts has to be dragged along by our own efforts. We are always striking the balance between what we might need, or want. Between what’s useful, and what’s not. The more extra weight you carry, the more likely you are to be injured carrying it over mountains. So just like the weighing of one’s soul against the feather of Maat— that critical vignette from the Egyptian Book of the Dead— lightness and balance represent our optimal condition.
Leave No Trace
“Leave No Trace” is a philosophy that involves minimizing the human impact on natural areas when hiking and camping. Ethical use of the wilderness means leaving it as much like we found it as possible. It means cleaning up one’s own messes, taking out what we brought in with us, and being sustainable in our use of wild spaces. It’s a sort of care, of hygiene.
I like to think something parallel applies, to some extent, to how we regard the Thelemic traditions we practice, and also to how we might approach the philosophy of teaching and supporting others in their Great Work. I want to avoid leaving my trash behind, avoid interfering in anyone else’s way, abstain from blazing paths that are misleading to others. When we do make additions, it seems to me that they are most useful when they are minimal and deeply thought-out: unobtrusive trail signage, a blaze here and there on a tree, or a simple sign about the location of a spring. The primordial quality of the forest is part of what compels us, so each of us can have our own experiences there. Perhaps the same is true for the path of initiation.
Silence and Bliss
On my final night, the crowds of weekenders had dispersed. I set up my camp not far from a creek, in a lovely moss-filled, secluded grove, a comfortable distance off the main trail. The air was finally warm, my boots were finally dry again, and the gentle roar of water lulled me to sleep. The leaves under the sleeping bag were soft, and the solitude there absolutely perfect. These moments are the high points, the instants when we grope in darkness and finally make brush fingers with the ecstatic. That night was spent with Pan.
The Map is not the Territory
The final day was supposed to be the easy one. According to my topographical map, the trail was going to be flat and arc around the side of a mountain ridge for about 10 miles, until I got back to where my car was. I didn’t see any significant elevation gain or loss, so I woke up expecting a more relaxing day, with fewer climbs than I’d had before.
The reality was quite different. The trail ran along the mountainside, but it wriggled over boulders and large rocks the whole way. Mile after mile, my aching short legs protested the terrain. Nothing on my map indicated that all these boulders were here, that the going here would be so arduous. Between the soreness in my feet, and in my muscles, and the duct-taped blisters, I had to press my physical limits to complete what I expected to be an easy segment.
Similarly, these practices Crowley suggested are one thing on paper and in books. We have pranayama instructions, rituals, various meditative practices—sometimes in ambulo we discover they are quite different than we expect them to be. (Not always more challenging, but sometimes also more rewarding!) But exploring all of these with a minimum of expectations or preconceptions is part of their value. Perhaps for some regions, we also possess better navigational tools than were available during those times.
The Value of Wilderness
Wild and remote places played a key role in the life and visionary work of Aleister Crowley, as we can see in reviewing his autobiography and his diaries. However, little has been written about the method of seeking out wild spaces and nature for mystical purposes in the Great Work. In all likelihood, given the colonialist mentality of the time, Crowley took for granted that wild spaces would remain wild. Development, industry, and commercialization were not nearly the hot-button issues they are today on an increasingly crowded earth.
Unlike some other nations, the United States is endowed with many protected wilderness areas, national forests, and other wild places. The Appalachian Trail is one of the better well-known ones, but there are others for those who have the skill level. Under the current government, however, wilderness areas and parks are threatened throughout the United States. When these areas are opened up to development or commercialization, they can never be restored to their previous state. As they change, they no longer offer the same solitude or communion with nature, with the stars, or with oneself. This would have a significant detrimental effect on future generations of Thelemites and mystics.
Of course these wild spaces might not be essential for everyone’s Great Work or spiritual journey. However, similar places were critical for Crowley, notably during his mountain-climbing days, and during his treks across China, Algeria, and other lands that were foreign to him. These remote nooks of the face of the earth have always provided a refuge from society, have always had a role to play in the spiritual quest. And it has been that way for countless generations of mystics, magicians, and visionaries across cultures
And of course some of this is the fantasy of remoteness—the Appalachian Trail is more popular each year, and Crowley’s Algeria was hardly the wilderness that he would like us to think it is. But even with that in mind, I hope we as Thelemites will be more motivated to protect these places. Something happens where the stars are clear to see, and where the depth of the silence hangs in the air and the rocks. Spending time out there helps this profound silence condense into our own minds and our own beings.