Hazards of the Post-“Gnosis” Bardo or Get Over Yourself

I’m not exactly certain whether discovering that the territory you intend to cover has already been surveyed with passable adequacy is gratifying or depressing. At the very least it proves that, while you may in fact be mad, at least others have been crazy in a similar manner. (Or simply full of similar smelling shit.)

In any case…

Overwhelmed by the first rush and sense of power of a supernormal condition, they get dazzled with a little light which seems to them a tremendous illumination or a touch of force which they mistake for the full Divine Force or at least a very great yoga Shakti; or they accept some intermediate Power (not always a Power of the Divine) as the Supreme and an intermediate consciousness as the supreme realisation. Very readily they come to think that they are in the full cosmic consciousness when it is only some front or small part of it or some larger Mind, Life-Power or subtle physical ranges with which they have entered into dynamic connection. Or they feel themselves to be in an entirely illumined consciousness, while in reality they are receiving imperfectly things from above through a partial illumination of some mental or vital plane; for what comes is diminished and often deformed in the course of transmission through these planes; the receiving mind and vital of the sadhak also often understands or transcribes ill what has been received or throws up to mix with it its own ideas, feelings, desires, which it yet takes to be not its own but part of the Truth it is receiving because they are mixed with it, imitate its form, are lit up by its illumination and get from this association and borrowed light an exaggerated value. Sri Aurobindo “The Intermediate Zone”

Anyone who has spent more than twenty minutes in the company of occultists has encountered this phenomenon. The fellow who will tell you they have discovered “The Key to the Mysteries.” If you point out that the dude over by the bean dip also just told you he had the “Key to the Mysteries” and it was something different, you will be treated to a tirade on the other individual’s failings as an Initiate. If he is especially drunk, he may even say his competitor in locksmithing the Gates of Heaven is a Black Brother.

Aurobindo is, of course, ultimately trying to make a point about following a guru. (Do it. If you don’t you suck.) But the disfunction he is speaking of is all too real.

What the average book on “spirituality” or even Western Esotericism often fails to make clear is that serious spiritual development is fucking dangerous. You’re just as likely to make yourself absolutely batshit crazy as you are to become a powerful magus. In fact, the odds are probably against you.

Stripped of the more specific language of a particular tradition, magickal practice creates altered states of consciousness in varying degrees of intensity. The general pattern is of a cessation of discursive thought accompanied by deep euphoria or some other kind of “high.”

On a bare bones neurological level, this means one brain chemistry has at least temporarily changed. A moderately intense experience of “Gnosis” (as these states are often called) is sufficient to shift ones self-image, and can even cause reimprinting of one of the eight circuits, or the opening up and imprinting of a newer, higher one. Put simply, one has expanded their consciousness.

Which is all very well and good. The problems start in the middle period, when the “high” starts to wear off. During the period of collapse, the systole after the diastole, numerous strange things can happen. Like the swan that imprinted a ping pong ball as a sexual partner, a person in “Post-gnosis” can latch on to any number of ideas as they try to integrate their transrational experience into a frame their mundane ego can accept. Quite often, they end up with little more than an inflated version of what they came in with.

Ken Wilber speaks of the difference between “states” (like “Gnosis”, for instance) and “stages,” or actual benchmarks of spiritual development. He breaks the growth of the psyche into stages, ranging between total, infantile self involvement to transpersonal awareness. A person can experience “Gnosis” at any stage. This doesn’t mean any vertical development has occurred. Unless the awareness conveyed by a particular state is assimilated and turned into a permanent trait, the individual will simply interpret the phenomena of that state in terms of the level they dwell at normally. So, a if a person has a literal view of myth (the “mythic phase” in Wilber’s taxonomy) will translate their experience as a literal revelation from God. Someone at a later phase would interpret it very differently.

It may be useful, by way of illustration, to use the Tibetan Book of the Dead as an analogy. The wake of “Gnosis” is quite Bardo-like after all. After emerging from the Luminosity, the TBD gives numerous “Realms” into which an individual can fall and be reborn. One finds startling parallels between these “Realms” and the various imbalanced perspectives often encountered among occultists.

In the “Hell Realm,” for example, we have paranoia, plain and simple. This is the magus who is always involved in some kind of magickal warfare with someone, for some very high minded purpose. Any time you hear a statement that sounds something like “I usually don’t get involved in this sort of thing, but this person must be stopped,” you can be sure that the instances in which this person goes martial are fairly common. This is the result of a territorial circuit or late narcissistic stage fixation. The individual wants the world to either be what they have decided it should be, or it can go to hell.

We could go through a rather speculative journey through the other “Realms” and try to discover other “occult pathologies” that map to them. But I think the point is clear. You can pour the clearest water into a cup of mud, and you will get more mud.
In business circles, there is something called the Peter Principle. This states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his/her own level of incompetence.” In the occult, aspirants tend to attain to their own level of psychopathology. If they are particularly successful, they may even convince others that their pathology equals enlightenment.

The trick is emphatically not to get into a cycle of hand wringing in which one worries about whether they are “really” enlightened or if they’re just experiencing a kind of psychic backwash. There is no way to avoid mild instances of some ego inflation, map/territory confusion, or a persistence of older programs interfering with new one. Instead of trying to guard against these things, it’s far more productive to assume that you are at least partly full of shit, and laugh at yourself.

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