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 25, “The Law of Limitation, Part Two,” pp. 115-118.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 26, “The Law of Limitation,” from the second paragraph on p. 155 to the end of the chapter on p. 159.
The section of The Cosmic Doctrine we reviewed last month covered some of the core principles of magical practice. This next serving goes even further into the practical details of operative magic, covering material that to the best of my knowledge appears nowhere else in print. In the process of this exposition, our text veers in some odd directions, using terminology that appears nowhere else in The Cosmic Doctrine and taking on a noticeably different tone—different enough that I’ve come to think that Fortune has quietly incorporated into her text material from another source, perhaps a document she received from her own teacher.
One aspect of that difference in tone is a certain ruthless pragmatism, and the first paragraph puts it on full display. To understand what’s being said here, it helps to know that some of the commonplaces of today’s New Age spirituality have a long pedigree. In Fortune’s time, as in ours, a great many spiritual schools taught pupils to think of themselves as infinite, limitless, radiant beings, one with vast cosmic reservoirs of light and life, and to imagine light and life flowing through them in unfailing abundance. That’s a very pleasant thing to do, and it can be very helpful in the early stages of spiritual training, especially for people who have been raised to think of themselves as weak, wretched, and sinful—but it comes with a price tag. As our text says, “This enabled the power to use them, not them to use the power.”
In a well-managed occult school, that’s not necessarily a problem. Students begin by meditating on limitless light and life and love, and in the process they pay part of their dues by contributing their energy and intention to the egregor—the group mind—of the school. Later on, as they advance, they learn other ways of doing things, and can begin drawing on the stored energy in the school’s egregor. Unfortunately the idea of meditating on limitless light and life and love didn’t stay the property of well-managed occult schools; it became a common practice in the pop spirituality circuit, where there were no senior initiates to take the students aside one by one and tell them, “Okay, now you can learn what this is really about.”
The Law of Limitation is the secret of magical power, and as our text says, it was withheld from those on the probationary path—those, in other words, who were not yet finished readying themselves for initiation. Notice the past tense: “was withheld.” An approach had been tried, and turned out to have unexpected downsides, so a more complete explanation was provided to Fortune and her students, so they and others could avoid those downsides.
The more complete explanation unfolds from points made in our earlier discussion. The previous chapter discussed how magic worked on one plane begins on the next higher plane: the operative mage builds a form on the higher plane, and it then “condenses” onto the lower plane as a structure of forces that has magical effects on the lower plane. That’s crucial to understand, but it’s incomplete, because it doesn’t explain how you build the form on the higher plane. Now Fortune puts it into context by giving “the knowledge of the method of making forms.”
The secret is quite simple, and if you know your way around old magical rituals and have thought about their structure, you know it already. Every magical working starts on the highest plane the operative mage can reach and descends from there, plane by plane, until it reaches the plane which is intended to affect. Fortune describes three stages in that process. On the lower mental plane, the mage sets up a repeating pattern of thought, which moves from abstract principles to specific details and then works its way back up to abstract principles. In most rituals this pattern of thought is spoken aloud as an invocation, beginning and ending with a prayer to deity and including the specific intention of the working in the middle.
Once this has been formulated, the next form to be established is on the upper astral plane, which is among other things the plane of emotions. Here each stage in the circular pattern of thought is linked to feelings (and also, though Fortune does not mention this, to vivid imagery, another aspect of the upper astral plane). Thus the operative mage doesn’t read the invocation as though he was reciting the contents of a laundry list. When he addresses deity at the beginning, he feels a sense of veneration and awe appropriate for entering into the divine presence; when he addresses deity at the end, he feels gratitude, knowing that the working will succeed, and so on.
The third form to be established is on the lower astral plane, and the energies to be brought into play here are those our text primly describes as “the driving force of the nature.” The lower astral is the plane of the passions. In Fortune’s own system of magic, the driving force put to work at this stage was sexual energy pure and simple. That doesn’t mean that ritual sex or any other kind of sexual activity is involved; it means that Fortune and the other members of her magical order knew and practiced various disciplines that would temporarily divert sexual energies to magical purposes. (This isn’t particularly difficult, and she gives instructions for a simple version of the exercise in her book The Problem of Purity.) Once the form has been established on the lower astral, in turn, it condenses into the etheric/physical plane, and magical results follow in due time.
In terms of the symbolism of The Cosmic Doctrine, the pattern of thought on the lower mental plane corresponds to the Ring-Cosmos, the pattern of feeling on the upper astral plane corresponds to the Ring-Pass-Not, and the pattern of passionate energy on the lower astral plane corresponds to the Ring-Chaos. This may seem counterintuitive at first glance, since in the first chapters of our text, the Ring-Chaos comes into being immediately after the Ring-Cosmos, and the Ring-Pass-Not comes third. Still, one of the essential rules for understanding occult philosophy can be phrased simply enough: when you find something that doesn’t make instant sense, study it carefully, because it’s trying to teach you something.
What Fortune has outlined here is the magical theory of asceticism. All ascetic practices—fasting, celibacy, you name it—use the passions of the lower astral as a thrust-block, a Ring-Chaos against which the Ring-Cosmos of a concept held on the lower mental plane can push. As always in such workings, the risk taken by the ascetic is that of having the forces reverse their polarity—in this case, that happens when the passion becomes the active force and the intention to resist it becomes static, a thrust block against which the passion can build its force. This is what gives rise to the failed ascetic—the celibate who loses control of his lust, the public vegan who slips away to the next county once a month to visit a steak house, and so on.
The older approach, which is also that of occult tradition, is to alternate periods of asceticism with periods of normal healthy expression of the physical passions. The teachings that lead orthodox Jews to keep the Sabbath, and devout Christians to fast during Lent, are expressions of the same wisdom that had priests and priestesses in ancient Egypt spend one week out of every month in temple service, subject to a galaxy of taboos and purifications, and the rest of the month in the community living a much more ordinary lifestyle.
Just as the Ring-Cosmos rotates with respect to the Ring-Chaos, now aligned with it, now at right angles to it, so the operative mage alternates periods of ascetic practice with periods of a more ordinary lifestyle; just as the Ring-Pass-Not traces out the boundary between cosmos and chaos, in turn, the operative mage accepts certain simple restrictions that are meant, to borrow a phrase from Freemasonry, to keep the passions within due bounds. To turn to another metaphor from our text, the pendulum swings one way and then another, tracing out an arc of a circle.
All this, as Fortune points out, has to do with the involutionary arc—that is to say, the process by which spirit becomes matter. In the broadest sense, it can be studied to understand the aeons-long process by which our swarm of souls descended from the seventh plane to the plane we now inhabit, the plane of matter. In a more limited sense, it can be studied to understand the process by which each of us entered into incarnation in our present bodies, and the way in which the karma we bring from previous lives. In a more limited sense still—the sense that we have been exploring here—it can be used to understand the process by which magical workings have their effects. It does not explain the phenomena of the evolutionary arc—the process by which matter returns to spirit. That is subject to a different law, the Law of the Seven Deaths, which we’ll study in the next installment of this commentary.
Two other points need to be made here. The first has to do with the relationship between the personality and the Individuality—between the identity you’ve constructed out of memory and habit over the course of this incarnation, and the identity you had before your mother and father were born. (This is one of the places where unfamiliar terminology slips in. In one part of this chapter Fortune suddenly refers to the Individuality as the Oversoul, and in another she refers to it as the Essential Self.) The Individuality is the whole of which each personality is a precisely limited part, and the descent into incarnation follows the same downward trajectory we’ve been tracing in this chapter. This is why, as Fortune points out, magical workings intended to deal with karma are best framed as invocations of the Individuality.
The second point is more complex, and like most of the material in The Cosmic Doctrine, is approached through a metaphor. The Law of Limitation applies only when considering a single plane. In Fortune’s handy metaphor, it is like a two-dimensional figure, like a geometrical drawing on a sheet of paper. You transcend the limits by introducing the third dimension. What this means is that limits that are necessary and immovable on one plane can be put into a broader context and made less restrictive by bringing in the influence of another plane.
We explored one way this works in an earlier chapter, when we discussed the sublimation and degradation of forces from plane to plane. Two forces that are locked together on one plane can be sublimated by raising them to a higher plane, at which point they are no longer locked together and release the energy that binds them together. Two forces that area locked together on one plane can also be degraded by taking them down to a lower plane, at which point you no longer have two forces but a single thing that can move freely.
There is another way to use the third dimension, however, and this is the one that Fortune stresses in this chapter. So long as your awareness remains focused on the plane where the two forces are in conflict, you are caught up in the conflict and limited to the range of options—usually a narrow one—that the conflict leaves open. If you can raise your awareness to a higher plane and perceive the conflict as a subset of the Cosmos, one process among many, governed by Cosmic laws and working out the purposes of the Solar Logos, you are no longer caught up in it. The conflict becomes simply one part of a broader field of action, and you can recognize its limitations, let it proceed toward balance, and go do something else while the conflict works itself out. Metaphorically—or not so metaphorically—you die to the conflict and rise above it.
The rest of this chapter is devoted to unfolding that metaphor, and laying the ground for the following chapter and its discussion of the Law of the Seven Deaths. Central to this discussion is a conceptual reversal that’s been central to the Western occult tradition since the days when seekers after wisdom sailed from the newborn city-states of Greece to sit at the feet of priests in the ancient temples of Egypt. In the language of the Greek mysteries, soma equals sema: the body, soma, is a tomb, sema.
To be alive in a material body, from the perspective of spiritual existence, is to be dead and buried. To be released from the material body through the process we call death is to be born into light and life. Initiation, the work of the Mysteries, is the process of awakening to light and life while still incarnate in the body. As Fortune points out, this is why any sequence of initiation rituals at least once, and often more than once, uses the symbolism of death and burial. The goal of the work of initiation was set out as exactly as one could wish by J.R.R. Tolkien in a vivid passage in The Fellowship of the Ring: “those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.” (This is one of quite a few places where Tolkien used specific turns of phrase standard in the occult scene of the early twentieth century; while he was a devout and highly orthodox Catholic in later life, I’ve long suspected that he dabbled, or more than dabbled, in occultism during his youth.)
There are seven rungs in the ladder of initiation, as Fortune says in one passage, and three degrees, as she says in another. These sayings are not as contradictory as they appear. The three degrees are the stages of the Lesser Mysteries, which involve respectively the mastery of desire, the mastery of fear, and the experience of death and resurrection. There are seven rungs in the ladder of initiation; these are the seven stages of the Greater Mysteries, which relate to the Seven Deaths discussed in the next chapter. Those of my readers who are Freemasons, or know their way around the symbolism of Freemasonry, may find it useful in this regard to reflect on the three Craft degrees and the mysterious ladder of Kadosh; there are close equivalents in other systems of initiation, that established by Fortune herself among them.
The last paragraph of our text sets all these matters in their broader context. In an earlier chapter we explored Fortune’s concept of the Initiation of the Nadir, the experience at the point of the deepest descent into matter in which the soul comes into contact with the Solar Logos directly. That is what is being discussed here. The task you have set yourself is the incarnation you are currently in. You circumscribe that task by becoming aware that the situation you’re in, the karma you bear, the strengths and weaknesses you have at your disposal, define the work that you have in front of you in this life. You see that task in relation to the cosmos by placing this life, if only in imagination, in the context of many lives, and of the great process of involution and evolution in which this life is so brief an episode. You see the Cosmic archetype by contemplating the divine, under whatever form and name you find most appropriate; you see the circumscribed form by contemplating yourself and your life—and through those two contemplations, you draw in creative force and focus it upon the events and circumstances of your life. How this is done will be explored in the shortest and most difficult chapter of this book, which we will examine in two months.
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 October 14, 2020. Until then, have at it!