This week we continue a monthly discussion of The Cosmic Doctrine by Dion Fortune, which I consider the most important work of 20th century occult philosophy. Climb in and fasten your seat belts; it’s turning out to be as wild a ride as I expected. If you’re just joining us now, please go back and read the previous commentaries, which are listed here; the material covered in these earlier posts is essential to making sense of what follows.
As noted in earlier posts, there are two widely available editions of The Cosmic Doctrine, the revised edition first published in 1956 and the Millennium Edition first published in 1995, which reprints the original privately printed edition of 1949. You can use either one for the discussions that follow. The text varies somewhat between the two editions, but the concepts and images are the same, and I’ll be referring to both.
Revised Edition: Chapter 23, “The Law of Action and Reaction,” pp. 108-111.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 24, “The Law of Action and Reaction,” pp. 145-151.
We have now finished our exploration of the forces bearing on human evolution, and are about to launch into Dion Fortune’s tabulation of some of the core laws of magic. If you have the Millennium Edition, unfortunately, that tabulation is made a little more difficult by some really bad formatting—I get the impression that somebody forgot to proofread this far into the book, because in my copy, at least, the table of planes is a complete mess. I’ve attached a corrected version below to help readers sort out what Fortune is saying.
It may come as a bit of a surprise to the more scientifically minded of my readers to find Newton’s law of motion listed as a law of magic, but there it is: in magic as in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That rule is the basis for a great deal of traditional occult thought. It has certain complexities not dealt with in physics, however, for physics by definition deals solely with the physical plane—the lowest of the seven planes in our solar system, one-seventh of the world we as human beings inhabit, and 1/49th of the greater cosmos in which we are placed.
According to Fortune, action and reaction are equal and opposite when measured on the same sub-plane: for example, the sub-plane Fortune calls the chemical sub-plane of the physical plane, the world of solid matter as we know it. If the action is on one sub-plane and the reaction is on another one step higher and lower, however, the potency of the one on the higher sub-plane is the square of the potency of the one on the lower. If the action is on one sub-plane and the reaction is two sub-planes removed, the potency of the higher is the square of the square, i.e., the fourth power, and so on.
Even on the physical plane, this works tolerably well. Think of the amount of moving water in a stream that it takes to move a rock along the streambed, or the far greater masses of wind that it takes to fill a sail and set a sailing vessel in motion. (Our standard measurements, sensibly enough, are all calibrated with reference to solid matter to make calculation easier.) What Fortune intends to discuss here, though, is what happens when you move forces up and down the planes above matter—a process that plays a central role in practical magic.
Imagine, Fortune suggests, that you could take one of the primal atoms discussed in the early chapters of The Cosmic Doctrine and split it apart. Each atom consists of two currents of movement in space locked into a vortex, so that the result seems static from outside. Break the bond that unites them, and you have two independent currents which have between them far more force than the atom itself could exert. There’s an additional wrinkle here, though, because the liberated forces are on a higher sub-plane than the atom was.
Two of Fortune’s technical terms are necessary for what follows: sublimation and degradation. To sublimate a force is to raise it to a higher sub-plane or plane. To degrade a force is to sink it to a lower sub-plane or plane. When you sublimate a force one sub-plane, you square it; when you degrade a force one sub-plane, you reduce it to its square root. Each atom of solid matter is therefore the static form of an immense amount of force, and if all the force in a single ounce of clay could be liberated at once—as Fortune points out—the resulting explosion would wreck the planet. (Remember that she was writing this long before the first nuclear weapon tests.)
The same principle applies on the subtler planes of being, and this is the core theme of this chapter. As a human being, your consciousness normally functions on what Fortune terms the lower astral, upper astral, or lower mental planes: the lower astral if your life is guided by passions and collective norms, the upper astral if your life is guided by imagination and feeling, the lower mental if your life is guided by personal ideals and reflective thought. Each of these planes contains seven sub-planes. Even on the lower astral plane, there is plenty of difference from the nearly animal consciousness of the lowest sub-plane and the shrewd folk-wisdom of the highest sub-plane, just as there is plenty of difference on the lower mental plane between the mind just waking to the life of ideas and the mind that has reflected deeply and begun to catch whispers of the next plane up.
To move from one sub-plane to a higher sub-plane is to unravel a static vortex and free a great deal of force of the type found on the higher sub-plane. If this is done too suddenly, especially when the leap in question covers more than one sub-plane, the resulting explosion can be disastrous; these are the spiritual crises that leave people gibbering in corners, or worse. In the ordinary way of things, the movement up the sub-planes takes place much more slowly, a little of the vortex being unraveled at a time; this is the ordinary way of spiritual evolution, and Fortune uses a mathematical metaphor here to make sense of it. If the sudden unraveling of the vortex is raising something to its square, she suggests, the ordinary process of evolution is like addition. You can get to 77 (seven to the seventh power) by adding 7 plus 7 plus 7… It’s going to take you a long time, though.
There is a middle ground between the sudden shattering revelation and the slow slogging process of ordinary evolution, however. That middle ground is initiation, which Fortune compares to multiplication. 7 times 7 times 7… gets you there a lot more quickly than addition, but without the sudden shock of raising to a higher power. This is the central work of a magical lodge like Fortune’s Fraternity (now Society) of the Inner Light, and it’s also something that can be pursued by the individual. This latter is not something Fortune discusses here, since The Cosmic Doctrine was written for members of the Fraternity of the Inner Light, but it should be remembered through the discussion that follows.
The process of initiation as Fortune sets it out is straightforward. The initiating group constructs, though ritual and the use of the trained imagination, a structure in the groupmind to receive the energy released from the initiate’s awareness and give it a useful form. (This structure is made up of imagery, narrative, and the other features of effective initiatory ritual.) In the ritual of initiation, the candidate is brought into contact with that structure after having been placed in a receptive psychological state. When the initiation works, the candidate’s consciousness rises to a higher level, and the force released by that upward movement—like the flash of an old-fashioned photographer’s flashbulb—imprints the structure on the candidate’s consciousness, giving the candidate a form that can be used to understand and work with the new capacities of awareness.
(Notice that Fortune is remarkably sloppy in her terminology here. At one point she says that the movement from sub-plane to sub-plane is like squaring, and initiation is like multiplication; a few paragraphs down she seems to be implying that each grade of initiation results in the attainment not of a sub-plane but of an entirely new plane. My working guess is that this bit of obfuscation was deliberate, so that those who didn’t read carefully and meditate on what they read would get confused.)
So sublimation, in one of its forms, is the result of initiation. Degradation is another thing entirely. When you degrade a force you take its two opposing polarities on one sub-plane and lock them together into a vortex, so that you create a much weaker force one sub-plane further down. This can be risky, because whatever structure of consciousness or substance the original force used to fill is left empty, and other things can fill it—including things that you really, truly don’t want filling it.
Here Fortune gives some extremely useful pointers about obsession. That’s a technical term for the condition in which a spirit has effectively supplanted the Individuality in an incarnate person, so that instead of being guided by the Individuality, the personality is guided by the spirit. (It differs from possession, which is the condition in which a spirit has supplanted the personality itself.) Obsession happens when the personality has undergone degradation in the technical sense used above, and is functioning on a lower sub-plane than it previously occupied. That leaves the open space through which the spirit enters.
That happens when the human will, the will of the personality, becomes inhibited—when the person stops willing and regresses to a passive, will-less state of awareness in some aspects of life. There are spiritual and pseudospiritual practices that do this, as Fortune was well aware, and it can also happen as a result of deliberate contacts with demonic entities—the “lower types of evolution” she mentions in passing. The basic rule here is that in every aspect of life, the mage acts intentionally; if she chooses to be receptive to astral influences, say, it’s a willed receptivity, wholly under her control; if she seeks to surrender herself to a deity, as you see so often among religious mages, it’s a willed surrender, done freely and through perfect control of the self.
In any magical action, equilibrium must be maintained. That has another dimension, for when you sublimate a force—raising it to a higher sub-plane and unraveling it into its component forces—that leaves an empty space on its original plane. The same thing happens if you degrade a force—bringing it down to a lower sub-plane and locking its component forces into a stable vortex. The trick to maintaining equilibrium, of course, is that you balance these two actions against each other. If you set out to bring a force down into manifestation on the physical plane, you need to sublimate a comparable force up out of the physical plane, to maintain equilibrium.
This is why, among other things, traditional occult training balances workings for spiritual development against workings of practical magic. By practicing the former, you sublimate yourself, unraveling vortices of fixed energy and expressing the freed forces on higher sub-planes; by practicing the latter, you further the descent of energies that are already in the process of flowing into manifestation and help wi8th the process of creation.
There are advanced forms of this kind of work, suitable for very skilled practitioners only. “The Sephiroth when reversed are the Qlippoth,” Fortune comments in passing; you have to know your way around magical literature to know that the Sephiroth are the ten primary realities that form the Tree of Life, and the Qlippoth are demonic beings who originated in the universe before ours. One potent way to manifest the power of the Sephiroth is to degrade the Qlippoth—to lock their polarized forces into a stable vortex, forcing them down a sub-plane and weakening their power. Old legends about binding demons are metaphors for this process.
To do this with the Qlippoth themselves, as already noted, is a very advanced form of magic. Each of the Qlippoth, however, has a reflection in the human soul, and one way to make use of Fortune’s formula is to use it on these reflections. Take any habit of passion, imagination, or thinking that is automatic, mindless, and destructive—these are the classic markers of demonic influence—and meditate on it until you can pick it apart into its two component forces, which alternate in your psyche. Then you pit the two component forces against each other until they lock into a stable vortex, and their ability to influence you is reduced to the square root of its previous potency. The two forces will differ from person to person—one person may balance anger with shame, another may balance anger with fear, or what have you—but by figuring out the balance and bringing the two forces into contact, degradation happens; a demon is bound.
A different kind of advanced magic is the subject of the last section of this chapter, and it’s a kind that very few people do these days. It used to be standard practice in late nineteenth and early twentieth century occultism, as a result of the influence of Spiritualism, for advanced practitioners to engage in mediumship, seeking to contact the beings known as “the Masters” in Theosophical literature. Some occult schools still teach this, but many do not, as the practice turned out to have a range of downsides, including the one Fortune hints at a little primly in the last sentence of this chapter.
Too much power brought into the personality inevitably tries to earth itself out, and it normally chooses the earthiest possible way to do that. This is why ministers in those branches of Christianity that like to whip up emotions to fever pitch, seeking to raise enough energy in this way to perform healings and other remarkable events, so often end up being caught in sexual embarrassments of one sort or another; it’s why sexual scandals are so reliable a part or the history of alternative spiritual groups, and why “the all too frequent overweighting of the lower aspects of the occultist” gave magical practitioners a reputation as sex fiends in Fortune’s time.
There are, fortunately, other ways to commune with benevolent nonhuman intelligences that don’t have this same downside. If you belong to an occult school that teaches the practice of mediumship with the Masters, and can learn how to do it safely from people who have enough experience to matter, that’s one thing, and close study of (and meditation on) the last three paragraphs of this chapter will be helpful. Otherwise, it’s probably best to leave that practice strictly alone.
Notes for Study:
As already noted, The Cosmic Doctrine is heavy going, especially for those who don’t have any previous exposure to occult philosophy. It’s useful to read through the assigned chapter once or twice, trying to get an overview, but after that take it a bit at a time. The best option for most people seems to be to set aside five or ten minutes a day during the month you spend on this chapter. During that daily session, take one short paragraph or half of a long one, read it closely, and think about what you’ve read, while picturing in your mind’s eye the image you’ve been given for that passage of text.
As you proceed through the chapter and its images, you’re likely to find yourself facing questions that the text doesn’t answer. Some of those are questions Fortune wants you to ask yourself, either because they’ll be answered later in the book or because they will encourage you to think in ways that will help you learn what the text has to say. It can be helpful to keep a notebook in which to write down such questions, as well as whatever thoughts and insights might come to you as you study the text.
Questions and comments can also be posted here for discussion. (I’d like to ask that only questions and comments relevant to The Cosmic Doctrine be posted here, to help keep things on topic.) We’ll go on to the next piece of the text on August 12, 2020. Until then, have at it!