Meditation isn’t everything

If you hang around a group of occultists for long enough, sooner or later you’re going to hear some variation on the phrase: “You need to meditate every day.”

Sometimes this is presented as a kind of best-practice recommendation, but other times folks will outright state that without daily meditation, magic (effective magic, anyway) is impossible.

This is…certainly a position one could take, but it’s not the only one. And in this post, I kind of want to unpack the role of meditation in Western magic. I also want to offer what might be a different perspective on what “meditation” even is, as well as a few different “meditative” techniques which you can try.

Why daily mediation?

The idea that you have to meditate in order to be good at magic is a common one. If you read most any “How To Magic” book printed in the last few decades, you’re bound to find it. And while we can argue about the precise origins of this idea, for all practical purposes it really comes down to one person: Aleister Crowley.

Now yes, yes, I know! If you’ve taken more than a cursory glance at the history of what we might as well call “The Western Esoteric Tradition,” you’re already shaking your head and wagging your finger at the screen. Crowley neither invented the idea of meditating for magical success, nor is he the only one of his contemporaries who practiced it.

But he did popularize it, to a degree that no one else in the tradition could even pretend to claim.

Crowley’s whole magical “schtick” was that every human being has a “True Will,” and that it’s both the right and responsibility of every human being to discover what their True Will is, and then to go about doing it. And in Crowley’s opinion, the best way to accomplish this was to combine ceremonial magic (as taught to him by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) with the meditative disciplines of yoga (as taught to him primarily by Swami Vivekananda).

The idea is that by mixing “magick” with “mysticism,” one could most reliably achieve what the Golden Dawn described as connecting with one’s “Higher Divine Genius” and what Crowley called the “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.”

The key word in the above sentence is “reliably.” Crowley acknowledged that there were many people throughout history who appeared to have made contact with their Divine Whatevers, without any real training or practice, but that it was more or less by happenstance that they did so. It was his goal and aim to provide a consistent, guaranteed system, by which the average person could attain this connection. And the system he developed along with George Cecil Jones required both daily magical ritual as well as daily meditation.

In one of the very first books written for Crowley and Jones’s magical order, Liber E vel Exercitiorum, they include instructions for the fundamental meditative practices required of members. Here’s an excerpt describing four positions or “asana” which are recommended for meditation…

You must learn to sit perfectly still with every muscle tense for long periods.
You must wear no garments that interfere with the posture in any of these experiments.
The first position: (The God). Sit in a chair; head up, back straight, knees together, hands on knees, eyes closed.
The second position: (The Dragon). Kneel; buttocks resting on the heels, toes turned back, back and head straight, hands on thighs.
The third position: (The Ibis). Stand, hold left ankle with right hand, free forefinger on lips.
The fourth position: (The Thunderbolt). Sit; left heel pressing up anus, right foot poised on its toes, the heel covering the phallus; arms stretched out over the knees; head and back straight.
Various things will happen to you while you are practising these positions; they must be carefully analysed and described.
Note down the duration of practice; the severity of the pain (if any) which accompanies it, the degree of rigidity attained, and any other pertinent matters.
When you have progressed up to the point that a saucer filled to the brim with water and poised upon the head does not spill one drop during a whole hour, and when you can no longer perceive the slightest tremor in any muscle; when, in short, you are perfectly steady and easy, you will be admitted for examination; and, should you pass, you will be instructed in more complex and difficult practices.

So that’s Crowley’s take in a terrifically-simplified nutshell. But what does that have to do with meditation in the occult or esoteric schools today?

Well, like it or not, Crowley’s thinking—and even many of his specific methods—is woven throughout almost every corner of the esoteric tradition you’re likely to come across these days. Whether you’re looking at Wicca, “ecclectic” witchcraft, or “New Thought,” you’ll find concepts like “True Will,” “visualization,” and, yes, daily meditation showing up over an over again.

And yes, as I wrote above, he’s not the only one to blame for this situation. One can point to Theosophy, and folks like Edgar Cayce as other examples. It’s my contention, though, that the seemingly inseparable marriage of magic and meditation is mostly Crowley’s fault.

Blame? Fault? Is meditation a bad thing?

If you’ve been reading this blog of mine for a while, you might have gotten the impression that I’m not super on-board with many of Crowley’s takes. I don’t subscribe to the idea that we each possesses a “True Will,” for instance.

As for his take on meditation, I’m in slightly more agreement with him than I usually am, but we are definitely not on the same page. I think he presents a far too narrow view of what meditation is, and I also think that meditation isn’t the only way to achieve the results most practitioners are actually going for.

I should also point out that there are many magical traditions out there which neither recommend nor require daily meditation. Medieval grimoires, astrological magic from the renaissance? You won’t find much that looks like meditation in there, and you can find countless other examples from other cultures and time periods.

So let’s do some unpacking, and think a bit about why many of today’s Western magicians meditate, and what might be some other ways to accomplish those goals than sitting on the floor for an hour.

What is meditation, really?

The general idea of meditation you’ll find kicking around the magical community today tends to represent it as “sitting still and quieting your mind,” or words to that effect. You’re supposed to find a comfortable spot, hold a particular position, and either tell your brain to focus on one specific thought, or else to shut the hell up entirely.

To do this, you’ll see a number of different techniques, many of which have been cribbed from Eastern religions. Mantras, mudras, breathing techniques, and various visualization exercises are scattered throughout most of the literature in print today. Sometimes these techniques are presented using Sanskrit terms (such as “asana” and “pranayama”) but sometimes they’re just described in an exercise and left unnamed.

Here’s the thing, though. A lot of the people I see writing about meditation in a Western magical context seem to have missed the forest for the trees. They spend an enormous amount of time describing technique after technique, and exercise after exercise, but they often fail to describe what the actual goal of doing all of this is.

In my opinion, the goal of meditation, in this context, is to achieve what I’m going to call “The In-Between Mind.”

The In-Between Mind is a state of awareness and thought which is somewhat in between that of your typical, waking consciousness and your typical, dreaming consciousness. It’s a bit like being half-asleep, yet profoundly aware at the same time. It’s “daydreaming,” but directed and purposeful.

I’ve heard this state referred to as “The Numinous” and “Gnosis,” but those few times I’ve seen or heard it adequately described all more or less explain it in terms similar to what I wrote above. You’re looking for a state of mind where, on one level, you feel disconnected from “mundane reality,” but at another level, more deeply connected to “something else” than you can easily put into words. And that lack of words is probably why so few authors even try to write about it. Regardless, you’ll know it once you experience it—it’s an unmistakable feeling.

Now, to be fair, in other contexts the goal of meditation is different. This is particularly true when you look to the Eastern religions from which a lot of the techniques are derived. I’m not addressing these other purposes, but rather sticking solely to that In-Between mental state which I believe sits at the heart of the “Western Esoteric Tradition.”

Mystical mind states without meditation

Now that I’ve at least tried to explain what meditation is actually for in a Western magical context, let’s talk a bit about alternatives. As I said, it’s possible to get into this In-Between Mind without using the typical meditation techniques you’ve probably read about.

First up, yes, there’s the use of increasingly-legal entheogenic or psychedelic substances. Let’s get that out of the way.

Cultures all over the planet, all throughout history, have made ritual or ceremonial use of plants and plant compounds to achieve an altered state of consciousness. And yes, this goes for people of “white, European” descent as well. Despite the pearl-clutching admonitions of certain witchcraft authors from the 1970s through the 1990s, there is absolutely a long, storied history of mind-altering “flying ointments” and other such chemical aids in European cunning traditions.

So, if that’s your jam, well…I’m not saying get busy with the hashish and psilocybin, but I’m also not telling you that it’s wrong or “ahistorical propaganda.”

However, when I say “meditation alternatives,” I don’t really mean mind-altering substances, but rather other practices which can get you into the In-Between Mind.

See, the meditation you read about more or less relies on that idea of “quiet” that I wrote about above. It gets you to the In-Between Mind by dialing down conscious thought. Put in more technical terms, meditation is an inhibitory process. There’s another kind of process, though, which can get you to the same place—an excitatory process.

Consider dancing to the steady rhythm of a drum beat. Just like the use of entheogens, you’ll find ritual or ceremonial music and dance all over the world. Sometimes this dancing is accompanied by elaborate costumes, and multiple dancers all playing at or performing certain roles. They are wholly immersive experiences which are designed to excite the mind and drive it toward the In-Between state not by quieting conscious thought, but by more or less drowning it out.

You work yourself up to an “ecstatic state” and overwhelm your workaday, mundane mind.

It’s important not to go too far down the often-problematic road of cultural comparison, but even a cursory survey of world religions shows a wide range of excitatory practices with long histories of uniting the mind to something “higher.”

One’s “Higher Divine Genius,” perhaps?

A grab bag of exercises

Since I think it’s legal requirement that any occult or esoteric author who writes about meditation has to provide an exercise or two for the reader to experiment with, here are a few of mine. Some of these fall on the “inhibitory” side of the graph, but others are more “excitatory” in nature. Also? I think most of them are quite fun and fairly easy to do.

The Counting Walk

Here’s my favorite inhibitory method: go for a walk.

If you can, do this outside, but this is also excellent when you’re on a treadmill. Wherever you do this, though, make sure you aren’t in an environment where you need to keep a constant awareness of your surroundings. Busy streets, bad neighborhoods, or bear country probably aren’t the best places to attempt this.

Begin just by taking a leisurely stroll and breathing normally. After you’ve settled into a relaxing, comfortable pace, start counting every time your right foot hits the ground. Don’t stomp your foot or anything, just walk naturally, but start counting whenever your right foot lands. “One. Two. Three. Four. One. Two. Three. Four.”

That’s it. Just count from one to four, saying the number either in your head or softly under your breath each time your right foot makes contact. One. Two. Three. Four.

If you like, you can begin to add a bit of counted breathing to this exercise. Exhale completely, then on the next “One,” begin to inhale, filling your lungs completely by the time you’ve hit “Four.” Then, at the next “One,” begin to exhale and finish with your lungs empty when you hit “Four” again. Repeat. When you do this, though, be sure to adjust your walking pace if needed. If you try this while walking briskly up a hill, well, don’t mention my name to the paramedics.

After a while, and a fair bit of practice, you might find a pace where this is very comfortable and relaxing. At that point, you might want to try expanding your breathing practice into what Israel Regardie called the “Four-Fold Breath.” That is, inhale for a count of four, then hold your breath for a count of four. Then you exhale for a count of four, and hold your lungs empty for a count of four. In four, hold four, out four, hold four, repeat.

It can be pretty tricky to do the four-fold breath in this walking manner, so definitely just ease into it at the start. Find your pace on some decent, level ground, then do one cycle and see how you feel. Then maybe try doing two cycles. Then maybe three. Give yourself breaks in between if you need to, and don’t push yourself too hard.

I find that a ten or fifteen minute Counting Walk with the Four-Fold Breath is really relaxing, and I quickly enter that In-Between mental state without feeling light-headed or that I’m struggling for air.

The Movie Scene

Here’s a fun excitatory exercise. I call this the “Movie Scene,” but you can use any scene from a movie, television show, or novel. Regardless of the source, choose a short scene from a work of fiction which speaks to you. Maybe it’s inspiring. Maybe it’s energizing. Whatever the feeling, make sure it’s something which you want to experience and deeply explore.

Give yourself between ten and fifteen minutes to try this out. When you first begin playing with this technique, you can do this while sitting down, laying down, taking a walk, or taking a shower. As with the Counting Walk, I wouldn’t do this somewhere dangerous, and I certainly wouldn’t do it while driving a car.

With that said, imagine the scene in your mind as best you are able. Maybe you can picture it, maybe you can hear it. Whichever of your senses you can engage, engage them all and really try to immerse yourself in the scene. At first, you can imagine that you’re just a bystander, observing the scene without participating. With practice, however, you may find yourself able to take on the role of one of the characters. Regardless, go through the entire scene in exactly the manner in which it was written or performed.

To be clear, don’t try to make any changes to the scene, or add your own editorial flourishes. Rather, let it play out just as you remember it. Once you’ve hit the end of the scene, start it again from the top, only this time try to add even more details. For instance, if the scene takes place over a breakfast table, be sure you’re picturing (or smelling, or tasting) all of the foods which are present. If it takes place on a frigid mountaintop, make sure you’re feeling the cold wind.

Go through the scene several times, from beginning to end, adding in as much detail as you can, and immersing yourself in it more and more deeply. Really feel as though you are there and participating. Let the events and emotions completely envelop you.

As you improve, try physically acting out the scene and saying your lines out loud. This might be easier for some scenes than for others, and again make sure you’re in a safe place to do this, but it’s well worth trying.

The actual act of performance is incredibly excitatory if you can pull it off, and it’s not really that hard once you have a little practice. To be honest, the hardest part is probably working past the idea that you’ll seem “silly” doing it. Give it your sincere effort, though. Do it while alone in your room, or otherwise not around prying eyes or ears. Or, if you’re in a magical group with other like-minded people, maybe offer it up as something you can all try out.

Depending on the sort of Movie Scene you’ve chosen, and how often you practice this, you can get quite deep so be sure you’re in an environment where it’s not only safe to immerse yourself in the scene, but also that you have the time and space to mentally and emotionally recover afterward.

Self Possession

This is another fun one, and it’s incredibly useful even outside of a meditative context. It can be either inhibitory or excitatory, depending on where you take it. As with the Movie Scene described above, give yourself a good ten or fifteen minutes to try this at first. With just a little practice, though, you’ll probably find that you’re able to do this for an hour or more at a time with ease.

Before you begin the exercise, take a few minutes to think about what you’ll be like in twenty years. Think about the studies you’re pursuing now, the practices you are working on, and the life experiences you are aiming for. Consider what twenty years of patient effort and success will mean for you. Really give this some thought. Maybe you can picture where you’ll be living or what your average day will be like, and that’s great, but what you’re really looking for is how you will feel and how you will think.

Once you’ve got an at least somewhat decent handle on this, take a few relaxing or “clearing” breaths, then try to immerse yourself in the future mind you imagine. Trust me, this is easier done than said.

I call this exercise “Self Possession” because that’s the sort of “vibe” you’re going for. You want to imagine yourself reaching forward in time, making contact with yourself twenty years from now, and then bringing that future self back to “possess” your body in the present. You want to connect with yourself after two decades of life experience, practice, and study.

What will it feel like to achieve most or all of the goals you’ve set for yourself in the present time? How will your thought processes seem after so many years of magical practice? What will you think about your current struggles given twenty years of perspective?

I wrote that this exercise is useful even when employed outside of meditation, and I meant it. After only a little practice, it’s possible to enter a “Self-Possessed” state almost at will. And I find this especially helpful when I’m angry at something or someone, or when I’m otherwise not necessarily thinking all that clearly. What’s more, I’ve actually found myself “remembering” solutions to various problems I’m experiencing, almost like my future self remembers how he solved them.

Where this exercise really shines, though, is when you’ve progressed to the point where you can not only bring up this mental state at will, but can retain it as you go about your day. I don’t mean to say that you can always live in a “Self-Possessed” state, but rather that you can invoke it before, say, taking a test or speaking in front of a group. Any time you feel ill-at-ease, try taking a few moments to bring in your Future Self, and then see how that affects not only your attitude but your performance.

As an added bonus, there are various visualization or “affirmation” practices which have at their heart imagining how “success” will look and feel. For example, if you are looking to move into a new home or apartment, you might meditate on how it will feel to sit in your new living room, or to work in your new garden.

In this Self Possession exercise, you’re immersing yourself in the most ideal future you can imagine, and then living and acting as though it has already come to pass. That’s a powerful affirmation.

Do it on the daily?

So I’ve shared my thoughts on how the whole “daily meditation” thing became so popular, and I’ve given you some ideas about alternative practices which are a little less of the “sitting around and clearing your mind” variety. Now, I should probably say something about how often you should practice.

The bottom line is that meditation, of any sort, is a skill. And skills really only improve with regular practice. The key to being able to enter into that In-Between Mind state with ease is to get into it frequently. So I don’t think it’s a mistake to say that yes, you should probably do something to get into this state every day.

Where I think some people do make a mistake, though, is in thinking there’s only one way to get into it in the first place. Or that once you find one method which works, you need to stick with that method and avoid experimenting with others.

In my opinion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Maybe one day your practice looks like sitting on the floor and getting your mindfulness on. But the next day? Maybe it looks like taking a Counting Walk. Or maybe it looks like Self-Possession while you’re standing in line for coffee, or working out at the gym.

Also, there’s an idea that with regular practice you should find yourself sitting and meditating for longer and longer stretches of time. I really think this is missing the point.

One of the earliest forms of meditation I experimented with was a simple count-down technique, versions of which I’ve seen in several books since. It begins with sitting in a comfortable spot, taking a few deep breaths, then closing your eyes. You relax your body, usually imagining that relaxation like a wave spreading over you from head to toe, and then you begin counting down in your head.

The version I learned had me count down from one hundred to one. With each number, you’re supposed to imagine that feeling of relaxation deepen, so that by the time you reached “one,” you were completely relaxed and completely at peace.

I still do this exercise from time to time, since I find I can get really deep when I do, but for the most part I find that just a few deep breaths and a conscious effort to relax is enough to get me into a fairly decent In-Between state. Most days, it takes me about thirty seconds to get there. What’s more, I don’t tend to hang around in this meditative state for very long. I’m usually there just to accomplish whatever magic I need to attend to. If it’s, say, something like an affirmation or just checking in with the spirits, then I’m probably in and out in around five minutes. If I’m “journeying” or doing “astral travel,” then yeah, I might be in this state for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour.

The point here is not to boast or anything, but rather to explain that once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you should be able to get into a meditative state quickly and reliably whenever you need to. Also? You shouldn’t find it much of a challenge to stay in that state for however long you wish to or need to.

So that’s my take on meditation. Let me know if you try any of these exercises, and how they work for you.

If nothing else, I hope they’ve inspired you to look beyond the “conventional” techniques and try something new.

Have fun!