Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Once long ago, I took a correspondence course in Theosophy. A lot of it concerned karma and reincarnation, which I found interesting if speculative.
Aleister Crowley called the people in that movement “Toshosophists,” and the Book of the Law has little that could be construed as referring to karma. A line such as “Therefore strike hard & low, and to hell with them, master! ” (II, 60) wouldn’t pass muster at a Theosophical lodge meeting.
Yet the Universe is a self-adjusting thing. Actions produce reactions, and causes have effects, though in a less moralistic manner than Theosophy taught me.
Race issues aren’t so much in the air at the moment, as penetrating our lungs and very bloodstream. The Brexit vote in the UK had a substantial racist component to it, as does the Euroskeptic movement across mainland Europe. And now the Dallas shootings of a group of police officers, following more harrowing shootings of black men, has given a ghastly twist to an already fraught situation in the US.
Some weeks ago, I was wrangling with someone online about race issues and white privilege. Online provides a poor environment to address the topic, because people usually bring strong emotional attitudes that will override any efforts at reasonable dialogue. I was soon being told I was unable to face the truth about myself, and words such as “whitesplaining” were thrown in. Which was a pity, since there were obviously people involved who could have said useful things, but who preferred take-it-or-leave-it accusations. But the discussion continued more usefully one-to-one basis; and I had to look at how outdated my own views might have become.
The karma you acquire
I was born into a society (England after WW2) where old imperial attitudes had barely been questioned, and was shaken to find as a young adult that, as the Empire faded to nothing, my assumptions about the world were simply wrong. That realisation didn’t – couldn’t – expunge my conditioning, and I’ve never wholly bridged the disconnect between what I know and how I react. The only fist-fight I ever had as an adult, for example, was with a West Indian neighbour. But I don’t blind myself in reviewing such a situation that somehow I was, or am, “inherently right.” I’m a Thelemite and I have no right but to do my will. Which clearly implies I have no right to trammel anyone else’s in doing so.
White privilege is real. Live in a country the population of which is mostly non-European, and you’ll soon discover this. Pink people have an inherent “get out of jail free” card, unless we really overstep the lines. I gratefully accept it as a useful fact of life. I just don’t fool myself that what I have in the worldly sense is entirely because of my abilities. Anyone but the children of the ultra-rich has to work for what they have, but looking and sounding and acting a certain way, and knowing a certain cultural milieu, oils a lot of wheels over the years. Look too dark, and you’re on your own.
Karma, I now tend to think, is not really the snapping rubber-band Elsie, my Theosophist teacher, portrayed. It’s more a matter of the constant accumulation of effects, like an incessant weaving of a vast, multidimensional tapestry. And it’s vitally important, if we’re to understand what we’re looking at, to remember that our own standard, historical perspective is just one possibility among many. To insist (for example) that Arab Muslims or black Americans see the world through our own set of filters is to miss the entire point of Thelema. An individual’s view of things is just that: individual. It cannot effectively encompass the viewpoint of another. Yet half the conversations I read or hear in Thelemic circles seem to miss this central, obvious fact.
There’s a family story of an emigrant forebear of mine who was involved with the Underground Railroad, bringing escaped slaves to safety in the northeastern US in the 1850s. There’s a shortage of hard facts about him, but he sounds like someone with whom I’m glad to share my DNA.
And on the other hand, there’s also a slight family connection to Lord William Beckford (1709-1770). The man lived well and richly, and among his other accomplishments was that of helping extend the vote (in the UK) to a broader swath of the population. He also had a Jamaican sugar plantation with 3,000 slaves on it.
This man is also my karma, my inheritance down the ages. I’m shaped by both these people, and their deeds, and my lingering attachment to the soil of a country I’ve not lived in for decades.
Karma is, I want to stress and will stress again, not a moral issue. It’s an actuality issue. I have brave men (and women, presumably) in my background, as well as some real operators. It all accumulates in producing my identity. Reducing what we are to “good,” “bad” or “so-so” superimposes an anachronistic veil on the fact that … stuff happened, and continues to happen.
Identity is where things get muddled. “I” am a life-impulse that manifests in the physical world but is actually one dynamic manifestation of an immeasurable consciousness. The personal me is just a temporary happenstance in this long parade through time and space. Karma is not affecting me, it’s creating me. Lord Beckford’s titles, lavish clothing and vast mansion were impressive, and accumulating the wealth needed for his lifestyle inflicted untold horrors on his slaves. But (slavery aside, obviously) he’s best understood as a nexus point: a Will pursuing what it understood of its purpose in a certain time and place, and according to the prevailing manners and mores. It’s later, when those manners and mores no longer have much meaning, that past acts become problems. Look at some of the howlers Crowley came out with – about women, Jews or poor people – that in his time were largely viewed as mainstream. The mischief comes when we look back from our own times when, despite what we think is now happening, we have gained a considerable amount of consciousness compared to a century ago. Crowley’s social attitudes today are almost indefensible, even if, in his embrace of a woman’s right to choose for her own body, or the necessity for us of pursuing whatever sexual tendencies we are moved to explore, he was decades ahead of his time.
History piles up. What worked then rarely works now, and what works now won’t work a dozen years down the way. The Brexit vote was partly about an absurd anachronism, an effort to take Britain back to a (mythical) time when it stood alone and free. For forty years the country tied its national karma to a grander project, the European Union, and has found in the past three weeks that it can’t undo that karma without massive consequences to its well-being. Support for Donald Trump in the US seems to pivot on a similar notion of good old days that the man is careful never to tie to a fixed time and place, for he’s also peddling a shallow myth.
Time only moves (so far as we can sense) in a future-wards direction. It’s important to grasp this.
The unfolding question
Carl Jung, as so often, had some astute comments to offer us. One was his realisation that his own father, a Swiss pastor, had failed to appreciate the function of Grace in the scheme of things. The man tried too hard to concoct a worldview that was theologically consistent, but excluded the wildness and the freedom of a direct encounter with the Divine. It fell to his son – it became Jung Jnr.’s karma – to resolve what his father could not.
“The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me,” he wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, in the chapter called On Life After Death. “Or conversely, I am a question which is addressed to the world, and must communicate my answer, for otherwise I am dependent on the world’s answer. That is a suprapersonal life task, which I accomplish only be effort and with difficulty. Perhaps it is a question which preoccupied my ancestors, and which they could not answer.”
The risk with karma is to assume it can be stopped, or resolved. In the USA, Martin Luther King did not provide “the answer” any more than did the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Brexit has thrown everything up in the air in Europe, and simply exposed a whole range of issues such as leadership, social policy and immigration, that require new approaches. Or, we might say, new karma.
Likewise, the US election this fall will resolve little on its own. But we might speculate that the worse it becomes, the more it will tease out the strands of karma that need to be faced. If there is one thing this Aeon is not, it’s the peaceful Age of Aquarius. “Now let it be first understood that I am a god of War and of Vengeance. I shall deal hardly with them,” says Ra-Hoor-Khuit in our Book‘s third chapter (III, v 3). And this is how karma is actually addressed: not by peace negotiations, but by confronting our own violence, our own actions.
Karma’s never simple. It’s entirely about paradoxes and complexities; about things that have piled up over great amounts of time. What part of each of us would save a runaway slave; and what part of us would confine him or her with thousands of others in a tropical hell? Or: what part of us hates, and what part of us wants freedom from hatred?
Race issues won’t be settled by legislation, affirmative action, government or church apologies or improved training for police, even if some or all of these may be of help. As Jung understood, karma is only resolved through acceptance of the utterly conflicted nature of mundane life, and its transcendence by a growth of consciousness.
Coming to a functional awareness of the ultimate and absolute worth of each human star on this galaxy-planet is a long-term goal. But accepting that it’s an ongoing process, and not something that can be fixed at a hypothetical Point X in history, is simply the application of basic Thelemic concepts. This isn’t about overlooking the flaws of the other person, or group, or religion, or race. It is about recognising that in our encounters with each other, we’re always facing the mirror of our own nature. And that nature is not (as we were taught for so long) sinful or inherently antisocial, even if any particular encounter is angry and incoherent. In all things, “there is that which remains.” (II, v 9).
Love is the law, love under will,