Winterviews continues today. From the Solstice till Imbolc, we’re bringing you non-stop interviews and other goodies from big-name authors:
- Brian Swimme, author of The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos – Winter Solstice, Dec. 21st
- Jason Pitzl-Waters, Pagan journalist of The Wild Hunt – Dec. 23rd
- John Ryan Haule, author of Jung in the 21st Century – Dec. 30th
- Chet Raymo, author of When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy – Jan. 6th
- IAO131, author of Naturalistic Occultism – Jan. 13th
- Connie Barlow, author of The Ghosts of Evolution – Jan. 20th
- Jon Cleland Host, creator of the Naturalistic Paganism group and frequent author at EvolutionaryTimes.org – Jan. 27th
- Adrian Harris, author of Wisdom of the Body: Embodied Knowing in Eco-Paganism – Imbolc, Feb. 3rd
This week we interview IAO131, Thelemite and author of Naturalistic Occultism.
B. T. Newberg: First off, could you tell us a little about Thelema?
IAO131: Thelema was started in 1904 with the reception of “The Book of the Law,” the central text of Thelema, by Aleister Crowley.
The most fundamental point is that we have a certain Law under which everything else is subsumed: Do what thou wilt. The Law of Liberty – as Thelema is often called – is so far-reaching that it has implications in all facets of life including metaphysics (as a philosophy), ethics (as a way of life), and theology (as a religion) yet it is so elegant that can be summed up in a single word, Thelema. “Do what thou wilt” is a radical exhortation for each individual to explore and express their true nature, their “True Will,” whatever that may be.
Our Goal is the fullest expression of ourselves in the True Will, our Path is towards the deepest totality of our selves, and our Community are neither in a “here-after” of Heaven nor gods or demi-gods in some plane “beyond” the world but rather the men and women here on Earth.
While we embrace the world, we do not fall into the trap of petty materialism, which can be seen in our distinguishing between “want” – our conscious desires, wishes, and whims that constantly come and go – and “True Will.”
Thelema is a religion of joy and beauty: Humor is our armor and laughter our weapon. No longer do we look upon solemnity and self-effacement as synonymous with spirituality. I believe Thelema is a Law of Liberty that holds the keys to unlock the innate potential of every individual, to release ourselves from the burden of sorrow and fear, and to allow ourselves to be ourselves and rejoice therein.
BTN: So, in that context, what does naturalism mean to you?
IAO131: To be very succinct: Naturalism is the explanation of phenomena in terms of natural laws and forces (especially psychology and physiology in the book Naturalistic Occultism), while avoiding any supernatural accounts. To expand a bit, Dion Fortune once said:
“The more I see of the occult world, the more I deplore the general absence of an impartial and scientific attitude.”
A naturalistic approach to magick* seeks to rectify this “deplorable” situation. A naturalistic approach to magick means that magick’s theories, conduct, and results are understood and explained in terms of the natural world.
Naturalism frowns upon making vague or ambiguous claims like invoking “astral currents” or “subtle energies” unless these are explained further in psychological or physiological terms. It is “The Method of Science, The Aim of Religion.” The idea is to avoid explaining occult phenomena in terms of mysterious energies, chakras, planes, spheres, rays, planets, trigrams, etc.
Instead, the attempt is to try to ground occultism in modern science while ridding ourselves of as many unnecessary and superstitious assumptions as possible.
That being said, this does not mean a naturalistic approach intends to “explain everything away,” so to speak. My personal belief is that, rather than naturalism “explaining away” magick, it shows how mysterious and magical Nature is, especially the human psycho-physical constitution.
BTN: I agree completely. The fact that my evolved biological nature can create the sense of presence and fulfilling relationship with a cultural entity, such as a deity, fills me with wonder. When I come to my Isis altar with an emotional problem that’s been bugging me all day, and then the problem comes to resolution within minutes of sitting down to chant and talk to her, that’s amazing to me! It’s just me sitting there, so obviously the resolution came from me somehow, but “I” couldn’t do it earlier. The fact that I can access some other part of my nature through such techniques, and thereby do what “I” can’t do “alone”, is the deepest mystery of all.
IAO131: Can’t say I disagree with anything you’ve said here. I find this idea to be a source of wonder and gratitude.
BTN: How is naturalism received within the Thelemic community? Is it widespread or rare?
IAO131: If there is one thing that can be said universally about Thelemites, it is that there is virtually nothing universal. If you ask five Thelemites for their opinion on something, you are going to get at least seven different opinions.
That being said, my personal beliefs around naturalism largely stem from things that Aleister Crowley himself wrote about in various places. He is quoted throughout the book Naturalistic Occultism as the founding father of the naturalistic approach. Crowley wasn’t a consistent naturalist, though, and the variety of perspectives he held is reflected in the multiplicity of points-of-view within the Thelemic community.
The reception I have seen of the book in particular is very encouraging – it seems many people have had similar thoughts but I happened to beat them to writing the thoughts down.
Overall, the Thelemic community is ultimately and ideally about finding one’s True Will and supporting everyone else’s quest to do the same. Whether or not Thelemites receive naturalism in a good or bad way is really not my business. I simply offer up a perspective for people to consider and possibly integrate into their own lives or discard. Do what thou wilt.
BTN: I want to ask a different kind of question now. You can’t be Pagan long before coming across Aleister Crowley here and there, and you have to admit, he can come across as kind of a creep. I have to confess, one thing that has always turned me off about Crowley and Thelema is the impression that it’s all about the juvenile thrill of thumbing convention. Have I gotten the wrong impression, and if so, how?
IAO131: There is certainly an element in Crowley and some Thelemites of the “thrill of thumbing convention,” although I am not sure that it’s “juvenile” in particular. It is a necessary part of every individual’s life to distinguish themselves from the various societal conventions, which involves “thumbing convention.” Insofar as it is a necessary aspect of coming to know one’s own beliefs, I think it is definitely something that is a part of Thelema. The exact same process or some form thereof is undergone by most Pagans I know.
That being said, if one is solely thumbing convention and not eventually moving on, then it seems juvenile. If you define yourself in terms of what you are not or what you don’t like, you are acting in reaction to something or someone else; Thelema encourages us to be the source our own action, the creative causal principle, in our own lives rather than defining ourselves in terms of others.
It is possible you and others get this impression because “thumbing convention” is often one of the more open and loud things that people do in various ways, so it draws people’s attention much more than the subtle and quiet work of many Thelemites. I don’t think we can let the small but loudest elements of our community define the entire culture, although they are part of it.
BTN: You bring up the question of reaction vs. being the source of your own action. That’s something that seems to be facing the various atheist communities right now, no longer satisfied to define themselves by what they don’t believe but rather by what they do believe. So you get things like Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists, the new term “Atheism+“, or of course movements like Humanism and Naturalism, where the emphasis is on positive relevance to our evolving lives.
But it is a hard, hard thing to move from reaction to own action. Do you find yourself constantly working against a sort of reactionary inertia in the community or in your self? If so, what’s one thing that’s aided you in that struggle?
IAO131: I think that we don’t simply pass from a stage of reaction to a stage of action. The Path is a constant and unending process of action and reaction. We may even react against ourselves – our behaviors we don’t like, our past beliefs, our attitudes – and come to a better understanding of how we want to act.
The problem becomes when we are completely stuck in and defined by our reaction. Many Satanists, for example, define themselves in contrast to Christianity, which is fine but hopefully they will come to a more authentic understanding of Satanism (to keep the example going) and themselves that is defined in terms of their own nature rather than in opposition to Christianity.
Thelema doesn’t try to be Christianity (or anything else) turned upside-down, and Thelemites are encouraged to be themselves, even if that means reacting against Aleister Crowley to find one’s own way.
Reaction is a natural part of existence, and it shouldn’t be avoided or looked down upon. In my opinion, it is stagnation or rigidity (or “inertia” as you wrote) that should be confronted and overcome, seeking instead to always learn, grow, expand, and further adapt to life.
The knowledge that life is a continuously dynamic process aids me in this “struggle.” This, and the knowledge that “Existence is pure joy” (as it says in The Book of the Law) helps me to take a step back and get a wider perspective of my life, acknowledging the sorrows and discomforts as part of the process of becoming myself; it allows me to more mindfully and acceptingly participate in the mystery and joy of being alive.
BTN: Earlier, you mentioned expressing our “True Will” or “true nature”, in contrast to “conscious desires, wishes, and whims.” While it is fairly easy to distinguish between momentary impulses on the one hand, and long-term interests and stable personality traits on the other, I wonder if something deeper is implied. How do you see “True Will” potentially fitting into modern scientific models of mind and personality?
IAO131: Something deeper is indeed implied beyond simply short-term versus long-term. True Will refers to the expression of one’s deepest and most complete sense of self, especially in each moment, rather than being a specific long-term goal or being defined in contrast to passing whims and wishes.
As for “modern scientific models of mind and personality,” there are as many models as there are people who make models. Since I am more versed in psychology, I can speak to that side of things.
In terms of Freud, Crowley explicitly says that True Will is similar to the unconscious, and that Freud got it wrong that the unconscious needed to be kept in check so vigorously by the super-ego and ego. Jung was more correct insofar as he realized the unconscious was the source of knowledge and power beyond mere sexual libido, but – again – Crowley believed that Jung didn’t go far enough in saying that the unconscious should not be restricted.
Crowley often uses the unconscious as analogous to, a metaphor for, or sometimes identical with the True Will or “Silent Self.” In many ways, the purpose of a lot of magical and meditative work is to get the conscious mind with all of its rights and wrongs and should’s and shouldn’t’s out of the way of the natural flow of the self, which we might call the “unconscious mind.”
As for other psychologists, one could essentially, in terms of Carl Rogers’ view of personality, equate the Will with the “actualizing tendency” of the “real self.” In terms of Karen Horney, one could say that finding True Will is essentially overcoming the “tyranny of the ‘should'” so that the ideal self and real self become identical. These are just some founding figures of psychology to show there are many similarities and overlaps – it would take a large book to discuss the various “modern scientific models of mind and personality,” let alone how True Will relates to them or not.
BTN: When you say the idea is “to get the conscious mind with all of its rights and wrongs and should’s and shouldn’t’s out of the way of the natural flow of the self”, that sounds a lot like Zen, which brings me to another question I meant to ask. In Buddhism, one of the fundamental expressions of the “natural flow of the self” is compassion, but I gather that compassion occupies a somewhat controversial position in Thelema. For example, Crowley writes:
“Compassion is the vice of kings: stamp down the wretched & the weak: this is the law of the strong: this is our
law and the joy of the world.” (AL II, 21)
And in the first issue of the Journal of Thelemic Studies, two articles consider ethics from divergent views, one promoting a “strength prevails” ethic, the other more open to compassion as a potential expression of the True Will. Can you speak to that controversy?
IAO131: This is a somewat controversial and convoluted topic.
First of all, you quoted The Book of the Law, which Thelemites believe each person should interpret for him or herself, with reference to Crowley’s writings thereupon it is something important to be noted.
Second, if we understand compassion etymologically, it means to “suffer with” someone (com [with] – patio [suffering]), and it is for this reason that Crowley did not approve of this specific definition of compassion. He wrote:
“All this talk about ‘suffering humanity’ is principally drivel based on the error of transferring one’s own psychology to one’s neighbour. This thesis concerning compassion is of the most palmary importance in the ethics of Thelema. It is necessary that we stop, once for all, this ignorant meddling with other people’s business. Each individual must be left free to follow his own path.”
We can see that he essentially did not want people to assume anything about anyone else, including their suffering. On the other hand, he also wrote:
“I understand by ‘Compassion,’ the sacrament of suffering, partaken by the true worshippers of the Highest. And it is an ecstasy in which there is no trace of pain.”
It is obvious that he could hold multiple definitions or views on the same subject at once, and – as with most everything in Thelema – there are several levels of meaning, some of which contradict each other (hence the fact that this topic is “convoluted,” as I said earlier).
My personal view is that, in both the cases where compassion is a word to describe empathy as well as a word to describe the ‘natural flow’ in a more Buddhist way, it does not particularly matter. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” If it is your Will to act in a way that is compassionate, so be it. If it is your Will to act in a way that is not compassionate, so be it.
The real, crucial issue is whether or not it is a natural, fulfilling expression of your self, not whether it conforms to some kind of externally-imposed notion of “right conduct”, which is exactly what Thelema is against.
You will suffer the consequences of your action, no matter what you do – compassionate or not. “Success is your proof.” Overall, we are told to find and to do our True Wills, not to debate too much about the nature of our Wills (unless debating be our nature, of course).
BTN: And to help discover our True Wills, I understand you have a book out called Naturalistic Occultism, now in its second edition. How is it different from other books on Thelema and the Occult?
IAO131: This book is different from others primarily because it attempts to take a completely naturalistic approach to occultism. While many books have references here and there to naturalistic ideas (e.g. that a chakra may have a physiological correlate or that demons are parts of the psyche), virtually all books on occultism – including Crowley’s – do not take a purely naturalistic approach. Most books that deal with occultism are either (a) scientifically-oriented and therefore disparaging and dismissive of the occult, or (b) occultist-oriented and therefore suspicious of, dismissive of, or antithetical towards modern science in various ways. Naturalistic Occultism attempts to walk the fine line between maintaining a scientific approach while also maintaining the validity of spiritual experiences in general and occult practices in particular.
Naturalistic Occultism is a book about occultism by a Thelemite. It is not explicitly about Thelema, although, since I am very involved in the tradition, it will inevitably appear so in one way or another. The very idea that Occultism is used to find your ‘True Will’ is to use Thelemic language to orient oneself within occultism.
Another crossover is the fact that the notion of ‘naturalistic occultism’ comes almost entirely from Aleister Crowley as the progenitor of the approach known as ‘Scientific Illuminism.’ The book Naturalistic Occultism has the subtitle ‘An Introduction to Scientific Illuminism,’ showing my indebtedness to him.
BTN: To conclude: If you were asked to encapsulate in just one sentence the heart of your personal path, what would it be?
IAO131: The heart of my personal path is to constantly and consistently learn and grow so that I may become more present, more balanced, more whole, and more joyful through maintaining mindfulness, gratitude, acceptance, wonder, courage, curiosity, and a sense of humor while also respectfully encouraging and facilitating others to learn and grow in ways that allow them to actualize and fulfill their own potential as unique individuals. Hey, you didn’t say how long the sentence had to be! 🙂
*Magick is a name for the spiritual science passed down from Aleister Crowley and other occultists. Aleister Crowley defined Magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” In short, there is a “k” because Crowley used this spelling to differentiate what he was talking about from stage magic (e.g. pulling a rabbit out of a hat).
IAO131 is a practitioner and devotee of Thelema, a member of Ordo Templi Orientis, the co-creator and co-producer of the Speech in the Silence podcast (http://www.speechinthesilence.com), and an author whose works include essays on Thelema, magick, mysticism, and psychology and various books including Naturalistic Occultism: An Introduction to Scientific Illuminism. Many of his works including his latest essays can be found on his website: http://www.iao131.com
Thank you for bringing this perspective to the table. This is a very germane & valuable read for me personally. I intend to share it with our local Thelema-inspired group & expect it to provide us with much fodder for discussion.
I am always enjoying the breadth & diversity of ideas I find here. Much gratitude to you!
I appreciated BTN’s question here about the difficulty of moving from reaction to being one’s own source of action, from beliefs “against” to more positive and relevant beliefs. My own beliefs have formed around the 3.8 billion years of life on earth as a foundation for understanding and valuing much of what goes on in my life, and that all seems quite positive. The difficulty is that few others seem to be in the same place. Pantheists and others value nature and the cosmos as a whole, evolutionists are busy defending their position. To me–my blog is about this–the history of life speaks volumes about our purpose, our basic moral issues, and our anxiety about dying.
Fantastic interview, definitely picking up this book.
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