One of the central elements of spiritual living is the pursuit of self-improvement. Even if one’s goal is simply to be able to accept things precisely as they are, this already constitutes some kind of improvement of oneself.
Why? Why should spiritual pursuits encompass the nebulous idea of “self-improvement.” Why does spirituality often imply a journey, a transformative adventure? How can this be distinguished from simple greed for power or the shallow acquisitive lust that is celebrated in mainstream culture? I wouldn’t dare to hazard an answer – all the obvious and/or usual ones are far too glib to be acceptable.
Instead I’d like to present three fragmentary sketches of the spiritual journey of this life. There might be others, but these three seem to be reasonably common, and one person can be living out several of these stories simultaneously, though for most people one main theme will dominate at any one time (I suspect). Many of us get stuck somewhere along the way; impotent self-congratulation tends to follow in short order.
1) Spirituality as Building Oneself Up
First we have the notion that, from humble origins, one must create oneself, must set high ideals and then orchestrate one’s own evolution in order to achieve them. This is a very ego driven, (personal) will driven process. It assumes that one can know what is best for one; it assumes that the path will be more or less logical.
When I was younger and lacked trust in my basic capacities – since I had not felt myself to be proved in the world – this approach appealed to me. It made me feel good about myself because it enabled me to think that my life was in my control, that my spiritual and worldly destiny was mine to create. These were comforting illusions for someone who was relatively powerless. Indeed, they comfort even the most seemingly powerful.
Over time it became apparent to me that this model of spiritual development was inadequate. It tended to occlude my imagination, and to me imagination is one of the pillars of personal evolution.
I also found that it did not work very well. The effort of ego-will required to make changes leads to strain in the personality and the body itself. This straining and heaving makes progress difficult – it is as though one forges forward and resists oneself at the same time. Feeling constantly caught in this state, I began to question the whole model of “building oneself up” as a spiritual mode.
Ultimately I began to find that while going through the disciplined process of a regimented “magical curriculum” put out by a popular organisation I was not learning much from my “building myself up” work. Rather, what was educating me was a wildfire of spiritual experience, transforming me spontaneously and unpredictably and quite independently of my supposedly spiritual “training.”
When I was younger I struggled a lot with depression and anxiety and careened from crisis to crisis (many of which solely existed in my own mind). I began to realise that really I had no ability to fathom the true depths of the world’s mysteries. Consequently, the simple “build yourself up” model came to seem both superficial and moronic.
To achieve deep spiritual shifts it might be helpful to live a disciplined life, but on the other hand the discipline is not the source of the growth one seeks – at best it merely makes one more able to survive and integrate the mysteries of spontaneity when they strike.
Oh, and too much of that ego/will driven stuff will occlude one’s openness to mystery, and many proponents of this model of spirituality that I have met have turned out to be spiritually constipated, if not mentally deranged, by the disjointed artifice of their attempts at spiritual expression.
2) Spirituality as Passive Acceptance
Disillusioned with the Build Yourself Up model, I drifted in the clutches of my depression, my sense of alienation, my struggle to feel I could even exist in this unhomely world at all. I felt as though there was nothing else for me, for even with the periodic and intense lessons in personal gnosis that I underwent, I simply did not have the wherewithal to find my way.
Or so I thought. With hindsight I believe that I was instinctively walking the right path in my alienated disillusion, my mournful and directionless gloom. Despair, loss, and fear are all potent teachers if one is able to transmute them, or perhaps more accurately, if one is able to clear out of the way so that they can use one as a vessel for their own spontaneous transmutation.
Somewhere out of my sense of living defeat – punctuated by futile regression into trying to Build Myself Up – a rich spiritual vein opened in my life: reverence.
Reverence had always been a part of my life. I define it as admiration of the sheer majesty of existence. Of its unfathomable mystery. Of its vast complexity and simultaneous terrifying simplicity. Its shining brutality and its unending compassion.
From reverence I recovered something I had always known, yet often forgotten: that all is one, even though each thing is unique. The sacred oneness and difference of all thing(s) is a tricky mystery, and few are able to make sense of it, wanting to either dissolve the universe into a shallow unity or else pretend that it is utterly fragmented and compartmentalised.
And from this sense I found my gradual discovery that striving and achieving does not necessarily mean anything. That it can easily reduce one into a caricature of a human being.
When we think we can conquer ourselves and the reality in which we find ourselves, we no longer give ourselves the chance to let the beauty of Being sing for itself. We are so untrusting of the magic that binds reality together that we risk shutting ourselves from it. We get “cramp” as Jan Fries put it. As Princess Leia put it in Star Wars: “the more you tighten your fist, the more planets will slip through your fingers.”
So while I felt utterly defeated and barely clung to this existence, I was at least learning the full reality of just how infertile a field “Build Yourself Up” is.
Yet nothing is static, and gradually a new way opened for me. It is the way that I still wander, and I suspect that it is going to be the Way of the rest of my life.
3) Spirituality as Becoming What You Are
I discovered that when I am vulnerable and open and curious and willing to be surprised – well at those moments I discover I am capable of far more than I could have ever consciously believed.
For example when I was first playing in Sword Toward Self, learning the material, I constantly exceeded my self belief. Again and again I’d be presented with some ridiculously technical material to perform and again and again I’d find that I could play it immediately, even though I would not be able to believe my own ears as my fingers found their way across the fretboard of my bass.
It seems that perhaps the way to growth is not to build myself up, but to get out of my own way. My conscious expectations, even at their loftiest, where pathetic compared to what my unrehearsed spontaneity could invite. I began to realise how shallow and irrelevant the conscious thinking ego mind is. So much of its place is to offer distraction and chatter. The quieter this noise becomes, the more the gates open, the more the flow of the waters of life is free to gush through my being.
The tension and struggle of the ego magician is a product of wasted effort. It is possible to act without effort, but one needs to unlearn the habit of tension and striving. We move swiftest by aligning ourselves with the tides or the winds of wyrd: at full sail the ship of my soul will outrun any ego-galley’s oar-chained slave crew.
Of course, this impels us to have to learn how to trust. We have to trust mystery, uncertainty, the endless not-knowing. We have to know when to bide our time, to recognise the difference between prudent hesitation and cowardice or self-deception.
The more I strip away the false layers of my being, the more I am able to do this. Rather than waste endless energy trying to control the infinite unpredictability of the cosmos, I would prefer to embrace my personal oneness and separateness within the matrix of the universe.
I have learned that my Deep Mind is far wiser, more creative, and more spontaneous than my conscious mind will ever be. So I seek to turn myself over to its wisdom, to the wisdom of my heart and guts. And strangely, this seems in turn to produce the kinds of successes that my old attempts to build myself up sought and achieved only superficially (if at all).
In light of these reflections, Odin hanging on the tree as an image of spiritual transfiguration is a powerful refutation of the “build yourself up” mentality. It is good to have goals, to have discipline, to seek out and create a vision of the future. But if one is not rooted in oneself as a conduit of the flow of wyrd then one risks being little more than a vortex of wasted breath.
Discipline is best used not as a tool to build up but rather to dismantle the tyranny of conscious prejudice so that the true will, the rich and heady sap of the world tree which gives life to all, may flow through freely and without end. When we unlearn the ego’s addiction to strain we free our strength for creation, action, and reflection.
None of these reflections are original, even though it seems such sentiments need to be repeated endlessly for the sake of those who need them. In presenting them I can only do so as one who is a “work in progress.” Yet are we not all in such a predicament? The one who lays claim to any kind of perfection is a buffoon.
Becoming What You Are is not an easy task. You must sacrifice all your comforting illusions about who you think you should be. You have to cease imposing artbitrary standards of judgement and instead carefully uncover the deep logic of your life. You are a rock which does not require gaudy decoration (and hence be lost in an ocean of bad taste and stupidity). No: you need only let the tides of your life polish you into your innate beauty. It takes courage to bare oneself in this way, far more courage than anything else I can imagine.
Ass usual, Uncle Al was perhaps the most articulate of all who have touched on these themes:
“The Hawk and the Blindworm
This book would translate Beyond-Reason into the words of Reason.
Explain thou snow to them of Andaman.
The slaves of reason call this book Abuse-of-Language: they are right.
Language was made for men to eat and drink, make love, do barter, die. The wealth of a language consists in its Abstracts; the poorest tongues have a wealth of Concretes.
Therefore have Adepts praised silence; at least it does not mislead as speech does.
Also, Speech is a symptom of Thought.
Yet, silence is but the negative side of Truth; the positive side is beyond even silence.
Nevertheless, One True God crieth hriliu!
And the laughter of the Death-rattle is akin.”
A Sorcerer by the power of his magick had subdued all things to himself.
Would he travel? He could fly through space more swiftly than the stars.
Would he eat, drink, and take his pleasure? There was none that did not instantly obey his bidding.
In the whole system of ten million times ten million spheres upon the two and twenty million planes he had his desire.
And with all this he was but himself.
Consciousness is a symptom of disease.
All that moves well moves without will.
All skilfulness, all strain, all intention is contrary to ease.
Practice a thousand times, and it becomes difficult; a thousand thousand, and it becomes easy; a thousand thousand times a thousand thousand, and it is no longer Thou that doeth it, but It that doeth itself through thee. Not until then is that which is done well done.
Thus spoke FRATER PERDURABO as he leapt from rock to rock of the moraine without ever casting his eyes upon the ground.”