The issue we’ve been discussing for the last several months—the conviction on the part of well-to-do Americans, and people of the industrial world’s privileged classes more generally, that the world really is obliged to do whatever they think they want it to do and be whatever they tell it to be—has another common reflection out here on the farther shores of American spirituality. Making sense of that reflection, however, is going to involve a long and rambling journey through some fairly strange territory.
To be a little more specific we’re going to talk about the muddled distinction in comtemporary occultism between the right-hand path and the left-hand path. If you’re familiar with the last century or so of chatter in occult circles, you know these terms, perhaps more thoroughly than you would like. If not—why, get ready for what I hope will be an interesting stroll along some of the odder byways of the history of ideas.
The terms “right-hand path” and “left-hand path” come originally from Hindu Tantric tradition, where they refer to two general strategies for achieving the state of expanded consciousness that’s called samadhi in Sanskrit and enlightenment in English. Asceticism of various kinds, including celibacy, vegetarianism, and abstention from intoxicants, are important elements of Hindu spiritual practice. Do you follow the rules of ascetic practice strictly as way to build the inner momentum that will bring you to enlightenment? That’s dakshinachara, literally “the right-hand path.” On the other hand—literally!—do you follow the rules of ascetic practice strictly in the early phases of your training, and then deliberately violate them in a ritual setting, using the shock of the experience to jolt your mind out of its ordinary modes of working, and achieve enlightenment that way? That’s vamachara, literally “the left-hand path.” They’re both well-recognized approaches to Tantra, and many gurus will assign one or the other to a student depending on individual needs and strengths.
That was the state of things in the late 18th century, when Britain conquered India and Western scholars accordingly started finding out something about the astonishingly rich spiritual and philosophical traditions of Indian culture. I’m not sure how many people these days realize what a profound shock that was at the time. Europeans raised on parochial notions of intellectual history that ran from Greece to Europe in a straight line, and equally parochial notions of religious history that ran in an equally linear fashion from Judea to Europe, gradually came face to face with traditions as richly developed and intellectually challenging as anything the West had to offer. What’s more, the traditions in question calmly ignored some of the most basic assumptions of Western religious thought—above all else, the weird obsession Western religions have about sex.
There’s a long strange history to that obsession, which we don’t really need to get into here. The point that’s relevant is that the vast majority of religions around the world treat sex as an ordinary part of life. It’s not shocking at all to a devout Hindu that the central focus of worship in a temple of Shiva is the lingam, the symbolic penis of the god, any more than it’s shocking to practitioners of Shinto when large wooden penises are paraded down the street at certain festivals as emblems of the virile power of the kami. In the Western world religious people talk freely of the hand of God, the heart of God, the face of God, and so on—but can you imagine a devout modern Christian talking about God’s penis as an emblem of his creative power?
(Please note the adjective: modern Christian. The Middle Ages were much less mealy-mouthed, and such utterances as “by God’s stones!” (i.e., testicles) were theologically unobjectionable in those days; they took the doctrine that Christ was fully God and fully man to its robust logical conclusion. That was a long time ago, however.)
It’s one of the pervasive bad habits of Western thought to insist that a spectrum can only consist of its two ends, and so a lot of effort in 19th- and early 20th-century Western pop culture went into claiming that the East was as obsessive about sexuality as the West—just obsessive in the other direction. (Read pulp fiction from that era that featured, ahem, “sinister Orientals” drooling over European women, and you can get some measure of the way that the unmentionable desires of the Western world got projected onto Asian cultures.) That ended up running into trouble as soon as Max Muller et al. got to work turning out the deservedly famous translation series Sacred Books of the East, since even a very little reading there made it clear that, for example, Hindu ideas of sexual abstinence as a religious discipline were every bit as strict as their Christian equivalents.
That discovery paved the way for the repurposing of the terms “left-hand path” and “right-hand path” in Western alternative spirituality. Pop-culture generalizations about Hindu religion in the late 19th century routinely divided it up into morally pure (that is, sexually abstinent) right-hand path teachings and morally depraved (that is, sexually permissive) left-hand path teachings. You’ll find plenty of this in pulp literature as well—there’s no shortage in the more lurid end of pulp, the so-called “spicies,” of good yogis who keep their dhotis on and bad yogis who don’t. Thus west of Alexandria, at least, “right-hand path” got turned into a mildly ornate way of saying “virtuous,” and “left-hand path” accordingly became the equivalent label for “wicked.”
(I should probably pause here for a moment to talk about the repurposing of words. A certain number of people insist that because the terms “left-hand path” and “right-hand path” meant something specific in Hindu Tantric tradition, that’s what the phrases mean forever. Given the cavalier way that both phrases have been manhandled over the years, that thinking is understandable but it doesn’t happen to be true. The word “black” used to be mean “white”—it’s a cognate of the French word blanc. The word “silly” used to mean “blessed;” it’s an even closer cognate of the German word selig. The meanings of words and phrases mutate over time, especially when they pass from one language to another, and the genetic fallacy—the notion that the origins of a thing define that thing forever—is just as fallacious here as elsewhere.)
So the phrases “left-hand path” and “right-hand path” found new meanings as they found their way into the West. By way of their adoption by Theosophy—which borrowed freely if not always accurately from Asian spiritual traditions in its attempt to reconstruct the primordial wisdom tradition of humanity—those terms became widely accepted into Western occultism. There they found immediate use, due to a curious social habit I’ve discussed before.
It so happens that back in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, alternative spirituality, or at least the pose of alternative spirituality, offered a valuable service for women who wanted to lead sexually active lives without fear of blackmail—a serious risk at a time when a woman’s social existence could be destroyed by mere rumors of sexual impropriety, while men faced no social penalties for the same behavior. It so happened that one of the few things a man could do in Victorian Britain or America that had the same kind of socially devastating impact on his reputation was to get involved in really deviant spirituality. That led to the invention of the sex cult—a swingers’ club dressed up as an occult secret society, in which participants of both sexes could indulge their sexual appetites in the serene confidence that attempts at blackmail faced the threat of mutually assured social destruction.
The distinction between the left-hand path and the right-hand path was tailor-made for this situation. Sex cults could let it be known in the proper circles that they followed the left-hand path, meaning that you could join them and get laid, while occult orders that weren’t in the sex cult business could proclaim themselves as followers of the right-hand path, meaning that you could join them and keep your trousers or panties on. Writers of pulp fiction who had connections with the occult scene played the game with verve; in Dion Fortune’s “Dr. Taverner” stories, for example, the London suburb of Chelsea was full of sinister Black Lodges practicing the left-hand path—and if you know anything about Chelsea’s reputation as a hotbed of avant-garde social and sexual mores during the early 20th century, you know she was chuckling as she wrote that.
After the Second World War, though, the sex cult business model fell apart as the pendulum of Western mores swung from the extreme of sexual repression to the opposite extreme of sexual excess. The handful of the old sex cults that survived did so mostly by retooling themselves as occult or neopagan societies, and stopped advertising themselves in swingers’ magazines. The old model of left-hand and right-hand paths no longer served its function, but in a fine example of intellectual recycling, the old division has been evolving anew to trace out a different distinction among magical paths.
There’s a fine irony in this latest revision, because a pair of terms that started their career by being borrowed from one end of Asian spirituality seem to be turning into synonyms for a useful division in a completely different end of Asian spirituality. In Japanese Buddhism, one of the major distinctions between denominations is marked out by the terms jiriki and tariki. Jiriki means “self-power,” and tariki “other-power.” Do you hope to attain enlightenment through your own efforts? That’s the hallmark of jiriki denominations such as Zen Buddhism. Do you hope to attain enlightenment through the merit accumulated by the buddhas and bodhisattvas? That’s the hallmark of tariki denominations such as Shin Buddhism.
Mutatis mutandis, and replacing the labels with the ones we’ve been discussing, that same distinction is increasingly used in modern occult circles to differentiate among the various forms of occultism currently on offer. Where does the power that makes magic happen come from? If you belong to a left-hand path tradition, it comes from the self, and everything outside the self is actually or potentially a passive object on which the self can act. If you belong to a right-hand path tradition, it comes from outside the self—from God or the gods, or some more or less abstract and impersonal equivalent—and the self is a vessel for the power that flows through it from beyond it, not a free agent in a passive cosmos.
Are there problems with that distinction? Sure, and we’ll get to some of them in a moment. The point I want to make first is that it has a definite validity. You can approach magic—the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, to use Dion Fortune’s sound definition—as a matter of awakening the inherent powers of the individual self and using those powers to shape the universe of your experience. You can also approach magic as a matter of opening the self to powers that lie entirely beyond it, and participating in the resulting flows of power in ways that can benefit you and others. What’s more, the techniques you use to work magic in one way differ significantly from the techniques you use to work magic in the other.
There’s a pleasant irony, at least to me, in the definitions of the right-hand path and the left-hand path as they’re evolving in occult circles these days: the results contradict older uses of the same terminology in amusing ways. For example, the New Age movement is emphatically a tradition of the left-hand path, since it focuses so intently on the idea that you create your own reality and the world is obliged to become whatever you tell it to be. Equally, the magic of the grimoires—those early modern pop-culture handbooks of magic, which give detailed instructions for summoning demons—belong to the right-hand path in the strictest of modern senses, since they assume that the mage has no power of his own; his power over evil spirits is purely a function of the ineffable Names of God he uses to browbeat them into submission, and it’s the evil spirits, in turn, who accomplish wonders for the mage, not any power the mage has himself.
The pleasures of irony aside, though, any model that treats the right-hand path and the left-hand path as the only two options available for operative mages obscures far more than it reveals. The most important issue here is that most of the world’s occult traditions fall into neither category. Down through the years, there have always been some occult traditions entirely centered on one or the other of these approaches—that focused solely on strengthening and wielding the magical powers of the self, on the one (left) hand, or on invoking and participating in the magical powers of the cosmos, on the other (right) hand. Yet most Western occult traditions embrace a third option which doesn’t fall into either of these two extremes.
Right now, before you read any further, stretch out your arms straight out to your sides. As you hold that posture, what’s between your right hand and your left hand? All the rest of you. That’s the third option.
For the sake of clarity, let’s give this alternative a name, and call it the middle path, “which turneth neither to the right hand nor to the left” but goes straight ahead to its goal. In less emblematic language, the middle path works with the powers of the self, the powers of the cosmos, and—crucially—with the intricate relationships and interpenetrations that unite them. Occultists who follow the middle path work on developing the sources of power and insight that exist within themselves, they cultivate relationships with sources of power outside the self, and they also learn how each of these can foster the other: how working with sources of power outside the self can enlarge and develop the self’s own powers, and how work with the self’s own powers can make it easier and more effective to work with the powers of the cosmos.
Is it more complicated to do things this way than to fixate on one or the other side of the line between the individual and the cosmos? You bet. There’s a corresponding benefit, though, which is that you can accomplish more. That’s especially an issue because of the odd habit we discussed last week—the tendency for people in many branches of popular occultism to fall victim to delusions of omnipotence, and lose track of the fact that the universe is under no obligation to do whatever you tell it to do. Thus there are a lot of people these days trying to do the magical equivalent of powering a city with a single AAA battery.
Mind you, that’s only one of the ways that magic can fail; the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will is anything but foolproof, and you can mess it up in any number of ways. Yet it’s crucial to realize that the individual human being simply isn’t that powerful, all things considered. Each of us has certain very real capacities to change things in and around ourselves, and those are worth developing and exploring—but there are other things for which our personal capacities are inadequate. Grasping that, and finding the path between the pillars—between the delusion of individual omnipotence on the left hand, and the equal and opposite delusion of individual powerlessness on the right—is a crucial lesson just now. Where it leads, and what might be done about the predicaments of a troubled age from that standpoint, will be a central theme of our discussions in the weeks and months ahead.
Three notes on unrelated subjects. First, I’m delighted to report that the fifth volume of my epic fantasy with tentacles, The Weird of Hali: Providence, is now available for sale in print and ebook editions. If you haven’t already preordered it, you can order a copy here.
Second, I’m equally delighted to report that the story contest for deindustrial romances fielded an abundance of good stories, and Love in the Ruins: An Anthology of Deindustrial Romance is good to go. As usual, I got more first-rate stories than I could use. I’ve selected the following stories and poems for the anthology; with one exception, as noted below, those of you whose stories and poems were not chosen should seriously consider submitting them to Into the Ruins, the quarterly magazine of deindustrial SF. Here’s the list.
“The Doctor and the Priestess” by Violet Cabra
“Working Together” by Daniel Cowan
“That Which Cannot Be” by David England
“Courting Songs” by Tam Hob
“Letters from the Ruins” by C.L. Hobb
“At the End of the Gravel Road” by Ben Johnson
“Shacked Up” by Justin Patrick Moore
“A Nuclear Tale” by Ron Mucklestone
“Forest Princess” by Al Sevcik
“Neighborhood Watch” by Marcus Tremain
“The Legend of Josette” by K.L. Cooke
“Come Home Ere Falls The Night” by Troy Jones III
“The Winged Promise” by Boulder Lovin’ Cat.
If your story or poem was selected, please email me if you’ve got my address, or put through a comment marked not for posting with your email if you don’t. You’ll have the chance to do final edits on your piece, and of course the publisher will need to know how to contact you to get you your contract and your royalty payments.
All this has shown me that there’s still ample interest in writing deindustrial fiction. I also fielded one story—“The Goddess of Immokalee” by Santiago de Choch—that, due to what I suspect was an honest mistake on the author’s part, didn’t follow the happily-ever-after theme I asked for. It’s a thumping good deindustrial-SF story, though, and its arrival tipped the balance in a direction I’d already been considering for some time now.
So, third: I am calling for stories for a new After Oil anthology. The title will be After Oil 5: Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology, and stories should be submitted by January 1, 2020, either by posting to a blog online or by email to me — contact me via a comment marked “Not For Posting” to arrange for this. (Santiago, your story is already in the contest, so don’t worry.) To be considered for the anthology, stories should deal with the role of technology from the industrial age in the myths, legends, magic, and religions of the deindustrial world. All the other rules of the After Oil series apply:
- Short stories should be between 2500 and 8500 words in length, though I’m willing to consider one or two novellas of up to 15,000 words;
- They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;
- They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
- They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
- They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
- They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
- They should take into account the reality of limits to growth, finite supplies of nonrenewable resources, and the other hard realities of our species’ current predicament;
- They should not include space travel—that’s been done to death in SF and deserves a rest;
- They should not rely on alien space bats to solve humanity’s problems—miraculous technological discoveries, the timely arrival of advanced alien civilizations, sudden lurches in consciousness that make everyone in the world start acting like characters in a bad utopian novel, or what have you.
So we’re good to go for a new anthology. There’s a deeper reason for this, too. We’ve still got a way to go before it begins hitting the headlines, but those of my readers who recall the prehistory of the peak oil movement right around the turn of the millennium may want to pay attention to the same signs we watched then. Depletion never sleeps, and the temporary glut of liquid fuels that papered over the reality of peak oil after the price spikes of 2008-2010 is beginning to run thin. Stay tuned for the return of peak oil…