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 27, “The Law of Impactation,” pp. 124.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 27, “The Law of Impactation, or the Transmission of Action from One Plane to Another,” pp. 167-170.
Most of the material we’ve covered so far in this commentary can be found in equally detailed form in both the standard editions of our text. This chapter and the following one are exceptions to that rule. Both these chapters in the Millennium Edition are nearly three times as long as the corresponding chapters in the revised edition, and include diagrams left out at the time of revision. There’s a reason why the revised edition was published with these things left out, because like the last several chapters we’ve examined, this one deals with the techniques of practical magic—specifically, in this case, the techniques of practical polarity magic, the central magical method of Dion Fortune’s teaching.
Fortune isn’t the only writer of her period, or most of a century before her time, to be evasive about this. Eliphas Lévi, in his Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, is equally evasive about what he calls the Grand Arcanum, the secret of bringing magical forces into manifestation. That’s what Fortune is talking about here, too, and Lévi’s symbolism echoes Fortune’s closely enough that it’s pretty clear that they’re presenting a shared tradition.
Let’s start by considering the general theory of impactation, which is covered in the four paragraphs of this chapter from the revised edition. (This is all of p. 167 and the last paragraph on p. 170 in the Millennium Edition.)
We can begin with some definitions. The basic pattern of movement on the planes of being, as we have discussed in previous chapters, is involution followed by evolution: a soul, an energy, or an influence descends the planes from the upper spiritual plane to the physical plane, and then returns up the planes from the physical plane to the upper spiritual plane. (The diagram on the left is a reminder of how this works.) Any action that furthers one or the other of those movements is natural and beneficial—when an energy, say, is descending the plane, magical work that helps it on its way down is a good idea, but trying to make it go back up the planes before it has finished its descent is not.
There are specific terms for upward and downward motion on the planes depending on whether what you’re trying to affect is on the descending or the ascending arc of its journey. If it’s descending into manifestation, further descent is called impactation, while turning around and going backwards is called disintegration. If it’s rising back up out of manifestation, upward movement is called sublimation, while turning around and going back down into matter again is called degradation. Those aren’t value-neutral terms, and they’re not intended to be—disintegration and degradation have exactly the effects those words suggest.
This follows from the nature of the process we’re discussing. As Fortune explains, currents of unformed force descend the planes into matter because material objects provide the structure that allows them to organize themselves into form. Once the force has settled into its proper form, it can rise up out of matter but still maintain the form it has received without the scaffolding of material substance. To go back up the planes before descending all the way into form is to fail to coalesce into a stable form, and disintegration follows. To go back down into matter when the material form is no longer necessary is to fall back into the confusions and complexities of matter, and degradation follows.
So the wise occultist acts by impacting forces that are descending into manifestation in matter, and sublimating forces that have already earthed out on the physical plane. That isn’t as restrictive as it might seem, because there are always a great many currents of force descending at any given time and a great many more seeking to rise up out of manifestation, and it’s purely a matter of choosing which one to work with at any given time. Astrology is the classic way to figure out which currents are descending, by the way, and natural magic—the knowledge of which currents of energy are already in manifestation in herbs, stones, and other natural things—is the classic way to figure out which currents are ready to rise back up.
Sublimation, as our text says, is the art of separating the subtle from the dense. (“Thou shalt separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the dense, gently and with great ingenuity,” says the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus.) Impactation is quite another matter. To bring a descending energy further down the planes, the process is identical to the one we have examined several times in this commentary already, especially in the formation of the Cosmic atoms: two tangential forces encounter each other, form a vortex, and descend to the next plane down, where they become a stable node that can enter into interaction with other things on that plane.
So far and no farther the revised edition takes us. It’s in the Millennium Edition, which is based on the privately printed 1949 version, that the text goes further—in a guarded and allusive way, to be sure, but clearly enough that the meaning can be extracted.
Imagine, our text proposes, that you want to express an abstract concept in a concrete form—that is to say, you want to take something on the lower mental plane, the plane of abstract thinking, and give it a form on the upper astral plane, the plane of concrete imagery. (The same principles apply to the transition from each plane above the physical to the one below it, but this set of planes makes for a good clear example.) As it stands, the concept remains a concept, not a concrete image, and it cannot make the descent on its own.
It can only crystallize into an image when it is combined with something else—“an entity of a different type to your own,” in Fortune’s evasive phrase. The “type” in question is either involutionary or evolutionary. What is being said here is that you need to bring the concept that is descending into form together with something else that is rising up out of form, and link the two in a particular manner. For the involutionary pattern—the concept you want to transform into an image—the parts of the concept that can be expressed in astral form are moving toward impactation, and the parts that cannot are moving toward disintegration. For the evolutionary pattern—the influence rising up out of form—the parts that can be expressed as a mental concept are moving toward sublimation, and the parts that cannot are moving toward degradation. The diagram above and to the left expresses this: 1 and 2 are the two things to be combined, 1 the descending concept, 2 the rising form; + and – indicates descent and ascent respectively. The leftward half of the diagram shows the halves of 1 and 2 that are moving with the flow of nature, the righward half the halves that are moving toward disintegration and degradation respectively.
What happens when you join the two—“gently and with great ingenuity”—is that you create a symbol. Suppose the concept you want to express is that of the natural unfolding of the human spirit, and suppose the influence rising up out of form is the image of a rose. The image becomes a vehicle for the concept, so that the concept can take a step further down into manifestation. The concept becomes a vehicle for the image, so the image can take a step further away from manifestation. That’s the art of impactation: you impact something and sublimate something at the same moment. The same thing happens, and of course Fortune is broadly hinting at this all through the chapter, when a man and a woman have sex and conceive a child.
Something curious happens in the aftermath of the act of impactation, though. The two things that join together do so, in a certain sense, horizontally—no doubt Fortune chose that turn of phrase quite deliberately, and she and her students chuckled about it. The concept becoming an image and the image becoming a concept are on the same level, the boundary between the lower mental and upper astral planes, and they unite on that boundary. The diagram on the right shows what happens next: the halves of both that are moving downward unite, as do the halves that are rising upwards. The conceptual dimensions of the idea and the image sublimate together into higher levels of being, while their imaginal dimensions descend together into manifestation: meditating on the rose as a symbol of unfolding spirit leads to intuitions of meaning, that is, while the same interaction has encouraged quite a few people who’ve contemplated the rose as a symbol to plant rose-gardens! Horizontal union leads to vertical separation: that’s the key to the process, and it opens up some of the deeper dimensions of what Fortune is discussing.
One of Fortune’s essays included in the anthology Applied Magic, “The Circuit of Force,” helps clarify how this works. “In order that any thing or factor shall be brought down from a higher to a lower plane, it is necessary to analyse it into the contradictory factors that are held in equilibrium in its nature. To do this, one imagines the opposite extremes of which it is capable and expresses them separately while retaining in consciousness their essential unity when in equilibrium.” In practice, you become aware of the highest and lowest aspects of whatever it is you want to bring down to a lower plane, and work with each of these as already described.
Yet the two aspects of the concept, and the two aspects of the rose, never entirely separate. Rather, each recombines with its partner, and sets up a rhythm in consciousness, like two couples in a dance who are constantly changing partners. This is what gives symbols their magical force, and also their elusiveness. You can never pin them down, because the symbol and its meaning are constantly trading places and exchanging aspects of themselves. Analysis fails because it relies on dividing things into their components, and what makes a symbol powerful is not a component but a constantly changing set of relationships among all the components. The diagram Fortune uses for this is a hexagram, as shown on the left; the positive and negative aspects of each of the two forces interlock and interchange to produce a stable pattern that unites force and form, impactation and sublimation.
That far Fortune’s example proceeds. Anyone who has read the published accounts of workings by Fortune’s students, such as Alan Richardson’s Dancers to the Gods, or studied Fortune’s Rites of Isis and Pan in the recent edition capably edited by Gareth Knight, can take it a step further. That being the case, it seems unnecessary to be mealy-mouthed here.
The same process is at the heart of certain classes of polarity workings which are performed by properly trained operative occultists. These workings are not sex magic in the usual sense of that phrase, but it would be wholly inaccurate to say that sex has nothing to do with them. In this form of working, the force that is descending into manifestation is sexual energy, and the form that is rising up out of manifestation is the human soul—either an individual soul or the collective soul of a group of a nation. The participants should be sexually attracted to each other but should not have sex with each other, to keep the energies from earthing out in the time-honored fashion. The exact methods used vary from one type of polarity work to another, but in all cases sexual energy is raised by one participant or group of participants, and gathered up and directed into a form established and maintained by the other participant or group of participants.
That’s the horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension is also present, of course, and it can be best understood by tracing out the whole process in an actual example. The most common form in Fortune’s school involved one man and one woman, but it can also be worked in group form, as in the Rites of Isis and Pan mentioned above; these are arguably better suited to use as examples here as they have been published in their entirety. The participants in the working were the audience, who provided the sexual energy, and the people performing the ritual, who provided the form into which the energy flowed. The pattern of ideas the rites were meant to help bring down into manifestation was one that Dion Fortune wrote about at great length in her essays and novels—the need for a saner attitude toward sexuality in the Western world. That was the downward movement. The upward movement? That took the form of the spiritual exaltation of the participants.
This was the method of the ancient Mysteries. The rites performed at Eleusis, Samothrace, and the other centers of the old Mystery-cults didn’t make use of sexual desire as their motive force, so far as we know, but the culture in which they existed had to cope with different emotional and psychological burdens than the one in which Dion Fortune lived and worked. The principle was however the same: a horizontal energy flow between two participants or groups of participants, one providing the energy, the other providing the form, which brought certain ideas into concrete manifestation and simultaneously furthered the spiritual development of all the participants. Consider the ceremony of Communion in a sacramental Christian church and you can see exactly the same process at work, with adoration as the motive force, the congregation providing the energy, the priest and his assistants providing the form, the ideals of the Christian faith descending into manifestation and the participants being exalted spiritually by the working.
That which is impacted, Fortune points out, is a reflection of the combined nature of the impactors. No one can bring down an influence into manifestation in a clearer form than they themselves can experience and embody it, and those who participate in a working of this kind always remain in some sense connected to it. It’s possible to weaken that connection by establishing what Fortune calls the bar of impactation—a firm distinction between the higher plane on which the working is done and the lower plane on which its effects manifest. Think of an inverted letter A, like the one above. The two diagonal lines represent the descending influences from the two elements of the operation, and the crossbar is the bar of impactation. When the bar of impactation is solidly in place, the participants can leave the working behind and others can take up the work and continue it without disrupting the basic structure.
This chapter is full of hints as to how such operations may be done, combined with the calm suggestion that the student will need to meditate on the text repeatedly to figure out what exactly is being suggested; as the revised edition puts it, “more has been said here than you may realize.” This is true enough, but the interested student can go much further by combining meditations on our text with a close study of the rituals already cited and Dion Fortune’s novels, along with the useful commentary on the novels in Penny Billington and Ian Rees’ book The Keys to the Temple. It’s not at all impossible, through that course of study and practice, to get a very clear sense of exactly what Fortune is sketching out in this chapter, and will outline in even more detail in the final chapters of our text.
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 December 9, 2020. Until then, have at it!