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 26, “The Law of the Seven Deaths,” pp. 119-123.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 27, “The Law of the Seven Deaths,” pp. 160-166.
In the chapters of The Cosmic Doctrine we’ve studied over the last few months, Dion Fortune has passed on an extraordinary body of practical occult instruction—more of that relatively rare commodity, as noted earlier, than you’ll find in many entire books on magic. In this chapter she goes even further into the deep places of occult philosophy and practice. The last two chapters covered the work of the involutionary path, the process by which each of us descended into the world of matter, which is also the process by which each of us began our current incarnation, and the process by which any of us can learn to wield magical powers. The material she covered in those chapters is essential to understand how we got here and how we can work with the world that surrounds us. The material in this chapter is even more crucial, because it deals with where we go from here—and how.
It’s worth taking a moment in this context to recall the scheme of spiritual evolution Fortune has sketched out for us in previous chapters. Each of us began as a Cosmic atom, born of tangential movements in the Central Sun, where the twelve Rays intersect and set vortices spinning, and then drifted out to whichever Cosmic plane corresponded to our basic structure. Each of us was caught up and swept along in the movement of the Great Organism who became our Solar Logos as it moved out to the seventh Cosmic plane, and became part of the great cloud of Cosmic atoms surrounding the Logos in the early days of the solar system. Each of us, caught up in the rhythms of the Solar Logos, became a three-part organism—a Cosmic atom, a seed-atom created by the movements of the Cosmic atom, and a Divine Spark that reflected the Logoidal influence.
In that threefold form, each of us swirled around the Logos for long ages while the Lords of Flame, Form, and Mind brought the worlds into being. Each of us then began our own long pilgrimage down the planes, existing in the dream state of subjective consciousness, evolving on each plane the capacity to build a body of that plane, conditioned on each plane by the rhythms of the Planetary Spirit active on that plane, and guided by the Lords of Mind. Each of us descended all the way to the lowest plane of the solar system, the plane of dense and etheric matter, and worked our way through a long series of incarnations on that plane. Each of us finally awakened to objective consciousness and took our first steps on the long road back up the planes to the throne of the Logos—and here we are.
The Seven Deaths are the seven steps that lead to the way of ascent. Let’s take them, as Fortune does, one at a time.
The First Death has already been discussed in these commentaries at great length. Take two forces in motion and bring them together so that they intersect, and a vortex is born, which absorbs the movement of both and spins in place. The moving forces die to themselves, and a stable pattern in space is born. Everything enduring in the Cosmos, from the three great Rings to the least grain of dust in our solar system, comes into being by some form of that process. Notice the core principle here: the death of one thing is the birth of another.
The Second Death has also been explored in various ways in these pages. (Please note that this isn’t the “Second Death” talked about in writings about the afterlife.) In the First Death, the moving forces and the vortex exist on the same plane. In the Second, there’s a change of planes. Two forces come together on one plane, and the vortex they create comes into being on the next plane down. This is death from the perspective of the higher plane—two forces die—and birth from the perspective of the lower plane—a vortex is born.
Your birth into this life happened that way: a soul ready to descend into matter and the energies set in motion by an act of reproductive sex flowed together and formed a vortex, which brought your body into being. From the perspective of the higher planes, as Fortune discusses further on, you died and were buried in a body. From the perspective of the lowest plane, the one you experience with your ordinary senses, you were born. Yet the same equation can work the other way around. The vortex can and, indeed, must finally unravel and release the forces that created it. From the perspective of the lowest plane, each of us will die; from the perspective of the higher planes, each of us will be born out of matter. Your birth was an example of the Second Death. Your death, the death of your present body, is an example of the Third.
The Third Death is death as we usually mean that term. Each soul alternates between periods of being alive (in the conventional, material sense of that word) and being dead (also in the usual material sense of that word). As Fortune points out—and she’s in line with a great deal of Western esoteric tradition in doing so—we gather up experiences in what we call life, and absorb and benefit from those experiences in what we call death. In Fortune’s precise if amusing bovine metaphor, “we graze in the fields of Earth, and lie down to chew the cud in the fields of Heaven.” We plunge into the maelstrom of life, to borrow a different metaphor from a Marvel cartoon character, and then rest on the shores of death to catch our breath and make sense of what we’ve experienced.
Does this imply that death is nothing to be afraid of? That’s exactly what it implies. The prophetic religions of the last two and a half millennia or so have a lot to answer for, but one of their most disastrous missteps was the effort so many of them put into making the thought of death as terrifying as possible, in an attempt to scare people into being good. Of course it didn’t work, and it turned the normal, natural, healthy process of ripening toward death into a nightmare for countless millions of people. Nor have the materialists and atheists who came after them improved matters any by insisting, in the teeth of considerable evidence, that when you die, you stop existing. A considerable share of the follies and brutalities of the modern world are caused by the inability of so many people to think of death as anything but the worst outcome they can imagine.
Fortune’s advice here is excellent. Spend some time, not just once but regularly, imagining yourself leaving your physical body at death, and still existing. Read books on occult teachings about the afterlife—Fortune’s own short book Through the Gates of Death is a good place to start—and use those as a guide to reflection. Imagine yourself between lives, a conscious being still embodied in some of the subtle bodies you presently have, interacting with other dead people and with spiritual beings who have never had material bodies, or outgrew them ages ago. Get used to the idea of being dead, so that you no longer fear it. The prophetic religions made death terrifying by convincing people to imagine themselves frying in Hell; the same work of the imagination can be turned around and used in reverse. Get comfortable with the reality of death and you’ll find it much easier to live fully and joyously.
What makes this easier than it might be is that we all undergo an experience very closely related to death at regular intervals—for most of us, every night. Yes, that would be sleep, which is the Fourth Death. Sleep is far more important, and far more complex, than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. When you sleep, your Individuality—the real you, the you that existed before your mother and father were born—detaches itself from its masks and bodies to the extent that it is able. Those Individualities that still have a lot of work ahead of them on the human level rise only to the astral planes, the planes of desire, and contemplate in subjective consciousness the images of human desires. That is appropriate for them, since they need to pass through the experiences generated by those desires
Those that have gone further may rise to the mental planes and contemplate abstract ideas. This is the source of those dreams that offer answers to problems, provide guidance in life, and now and then foresee the future. Genuinely creative people, those who don’t simply recycle the contents of an existing stock of tropes but develop their own language of images and ideas, gather the material for their work in dreams that are consciously forgotten but subconsciously recalled. Finally, those who are in the process of outgrowing the human level of existence rise to the spiritual planes and waken to objective consciousness on those planes. The personality usually does not remember such awakenings but the Individuality does, and it can make adjustments in itself and its current personality to correct its course.
The same differentiation according to evolutionary levels happens after death. Souls that have completed only a small part of their journey on the human level spend most of their time between lives on the astral planes. In some cases all their time is spent there, and the newborn child ends up with substantial traces of the personality of the last life. Most often, though, and more and more often as the soul gains experience, it rises through the planes to whichever sub-plane was the highest it reached in life. This is where the Fifth Death happens. The soul awakens into objective consciousness, recognizes itself as the Individuality, and knows its personality as one of its expressions rather than its true self. The Christian language (“beholding the face of the Father”) which Fortune uses here may or may not appeal to you; if it doesn’t, try to see through it to what it symbolizes.
(One of my teachers, many years ago, liked to suggest that we are like people who were stuffed into gorilla suits in early childhood, so early we don’t remember it. The suits are very cleverly made; they stretched with you as you grew, allow you to eat and drink and excrete and move and do all the other activities of life—but you’re still stuck in a gorilla suit. Then one day, by chance, you notice a little glint of metal down low on your belly, and on examination discover that it’s a zipper pull. You pull it open, and discover two things. The first is that a lot of what you thought was true about yourself is only true of the gorilla suit. The second is that you can take the gorilla suit off, look at yourself in a mirror, and say, “So this is what I actually am.” The gorilla suit is your personality, the person under the gorilla suit is your Individuality, and the process of taking off the gorilla suit is a fair metaphor for what happens in the Fifth Death.)
At the end of this section of the chapter, Fortune includes a comment that really doesn’t communicate much unless you know a once-famous comment by Helena Blavatsky: “What you desire, that you become.” I imagine the old Russian mystic saying that with a cold little twinkle in her eye, because she’s quite correct—just not in any sense her listeners were likely to understand. Fortune’s comment is thus meant to help her students avoid making smoking craters of their lives. If you desire power, you will indeed obtain vanity; vanity, in turn, will slam you face first into one miserable experience after another; eventually, as a result, you will learn strength, foresight, and wisdom—and thus gain power. Blavatsky and Fortune are both right; your desires will give you the results of what you have permitted yourself to desire, and those results eventually will give you your desire. It’s just that the road there may not be to your liking. Be careful about what you let yourself desire!
Trance, the Sixth Death, used to be a great deal more important in occultism than it is today. What Fortune calls “normal psychism’—the use of the trained imagination (“picture consciousness” in her terms) as a replacement for trance states—has long since become standard, as its dangers are considerably less. Fortune summarizes the dangers neatly here. When you enter trance, the subplane of being with which you are in contact will depend precisely on your own inner state, and the risk of being drawn into negative magic by unfulfilled desires is not small. There are ways to avoid this, and the specific measures she gives here are among them; if you happen to have a talent for trance states and choose to develop that talent, Fortune’s advice is good. Otherwise, you’re better off working with ordinary imagination, where your conscious mind remains in control of the situation and it’s easier to keep the passions in check.
The Seventh Death, finally, is illumination, the state that Eastern spiritual practices call enlightenment. In this experience the Individuality awakens to full objective consciousness while the physical body is still alive and wide awake. The personality is seen for what it is, a temporary mask that the real you uses to interact with the physical plane and the other beings incarnated there, and the Individuality can experience the reality of all the planes at once. It’s an overwhelming experience, even when it happens only for an instant—which is usually the way things work out at first. To exist in this state permanently is to step beyond the human level of existence while still in a human body.
Fortune uses a neat play on words here to communicate the total reversal of perspectives that happens when illumination arrives or, on a smaller scale, when consciousness begins to glimpse the reality of the Individuality through the mask of the personality. “A living death”—back in the day, that was a convenient shorthand for a life so miserable and restricted that it was, in the imaginations of those using the phrase, indistinguishable from death. Look at death from another perspective—the perspective the Fortune offers in this chapter—and the concept proceeds to stand on its head. To be dead is to be free of the limitations of matter and capable of rising up into consciousness of the Individuality. To pass through illumination is to achieve that state while still incarnate in a physical body. The quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cited in last month’s commentary is a good description of the result.
To become an initiate in the full, rich sense of the word—the sense that Fortune is using here—is “to live at once in both worlds,” to dwell simultaneously on the physical plane and the inner planes, to be in full possession of the powers of a spiritual being while still in full possession of a physical body and all its functions. This is not an easy state to attain. In one of her other books Fortune mentions that it takes a minimum of three lifetimes devoted to occult study and practice to achieve that condition—and it takes enormous perseverance and discipline to accomplish all the necessary work in just three lifetimes! Keep in mind, however, that this is the ultimate goal of the Path; there are plenty of worthwhile achievements to accomplish on the way there, and even the first steps have their benefits.
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 November 11, 2020. Until then, have at it!