Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
The following is an edit from notes I prepared for a recent Academic Line class for students.
Psychological projection is the concept whereby which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by evading or denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually disapproving towards others, but prefers to avoid the fact, may constantly find other people to be passive-aggressive.
Freud explored the idea in his work, and today it’s a familiar part of human discourse. But why would we consider it part of the Mystery School work? For we do, and at certain points of the training, no-one logging less than two or three of their own projections per day in their diary would get a Pass from their supervisor.
We’re all familiar with the idea of life consisting of illusions that point towards one Grand Illusion when we study Hinduism, or Buddhism. In western cultures, we’re more convinced of the actual reality of the things we encounter, and stripping away that misconception is a critical component of the path towards discovering True Will.
One difference in Mystery School practice is that we address positive projections as well as negative ones. In group ceremonial work, officers are invested with a certain level and stamp of authority, as part of the magick. A Hierophant, for example, is supported by this during the working, even if the projection is spontaneously (and preferably) released afterwards.
More subtly, we examine projections onto authority figures: social exemplars, artists and musicians, Aleister Crowley as the prophet of the Aeon. Similarly, we look at the projections we place upon those close to us. In each case, we find aspects of ourselves we habitually exclude from our awareness. Seeing them in other magicians, in thinkers, lovers, writers and creative individuals – and making careful note of them – offers significant clues to the relationship we have with the transcendent Power within which we live and move. Work with such projection material continues over many years, as we gradually tease out things we’re too shy, or afraid, or other wise inhibited, to notice on a day-to-day basis.
Before that process comes into clear focus, we also need to eliminate our own blameful off-loading of the less adorable sides of our own nature onto those around us. In a close community such as a Mystery School, such matters are easily magnified, and the tradition is famously littered with feuds and schisms that could have been eased by such training of mental watchfulness.
Even in everyday life, openness to seeing of your own projections is a useful life-skill. It means you can catch your own reactions before you explode at all the irritating people in the world that reflect yourself to yourself all the time.
My own favourite excuse people offer for not joining a Mystery School is the statement, “I don’t want to get caught up in all the politics of those things.” And of course, the politics you can get caught up in are … you. If you aren’t political, caught up you will not become.
The practical idea of the Tree of Life, as in a board-game or a video game, is to the get to the top level. That is, to realise and unite with the Great Big Thing, the spiritual totality of which we are individually partial reflections. And small partial reflections, at that. But if we can embrace the totality, then we can first reach the famous Knowledge and Conversation, and later, go on to more comprehensive and ego-dissolving states of being.
There’s the clue. The mundane ego, which is a function of the outer consciousness, the daylight self if you will, exists with a huge filtration device as a back-up. We tend to see ourselves as temporary, flesh-inhabiting thought machines that sometimes have interesting spiritual experiences. We don’t – we can’t, because we won’t – see ourselves as spiritual beings that sometimes have temporary, flesh-inhabiting thought-based experiences.
But we can’t drop the filters all at once, or we go nuts. There was a discussion among some Temple members recently about Friedrich Nietzsche, who went suddenly catatonic, and never spoke again. There’s a long-standing esoteric view that he had, so to speak, philosophised himself to the point of a massive insight, but lacked the actual means to pass through the experience without damage to his personality structures. Perhaps that was the case … if so, he stands as an example of someone who would have been better off if he’d done his projection work before writing Thus Spake Zarathustra.
(For a brief, conventional overview of the man’s lapse into silence, see this).
We can take the projection approach for dealing with the Tarot associations of the paths by which we ascend the Tree. The Aeon, for example, is on the path by which the energies of spiritualised reason, in Hod, or Splendour, move into outer consciousness in Malkuth. Paradoxically, it is a path of Fire and a virtually revolutionary state of mind, because I said spiritualised reason, not just logic. Its impact on outer consciousness is to create an upheaval. We project onto spiritual intellect, the logical aspects of things, the process of ideation or idea-making, that it is simple and clear. But seen in relation to the totality of our existence, it is an encounter with some shocking ideas about what the roots of our beingness are all about.
Similarly, on the other side of the Tree, the Moon card actually depicts the process of projection pretty neatly. Here is the scarab beetle with the Sun at Midnight. He is painted against a background of life-rhythms, the underlying forces and factors within our nature that we exclude from consciousness most of the time.
Now, above, we see the consciously observed (i.e., projected) scene. It’s moonlit in a mysterious and somewhat freaky way. Here are images of Set and Anubis, in front of two dark towers like the pillars of a Hermetic temple. “How splendid is the Adventure!” Crowley says of what this card represents. But it is the depiction of going into an unknown region, not knowing much of what could emerge along the way. Hod was about reason, in a particular sense, whereas Netzach is about feeling and desire, emotion and instinct. That is, the stuff represented by the blue and red lines below. In advance, we can only project our own anxieties onto such an experience, even if turns out to be entirely salutary.
The clearest examples come with two of the cards leading directly into Tiphereth, Death and The Devil. Death represents the constant process of ceasing to be and coming into being that is the essential nature of human existence … and human existences. But for us, conventionally, the ending of anything is a cause for dismay or pain, and physical death is held out as a kind of failing, especially in the time when we’re promised every week that digital upgrades could help us live for centuries.
The Death card, and the path on which it lies, challenge our projections of fear, loss and failure around the ending of a phase of living, or an entire existence. Only by developing insight beyond the norm – by exposing our own projected anxieties – can we pass up this path.
The Devil even more directly challenges our assumptions about what is good, desirable or necessary. It’s a truism in the Mysteries that “The Devil is the Redeemer,” but realisation of this fact calls for courage and patience. Crowley grasped very clearly that things we conventionally regard as evil are integral parts of the essential vitality and what we could call the ‘deep ecology’ of the human soul; something for which, unsurprisingly, he is still widely execrated.
It takes a rare honesty about self to venture into this territory. Yet there is no full access to the Solar Self possible until we enter into this process.
Projection occurs in many directions. We project a lot onto our own selves (“I am unattractive and worthless;” or alternatively, “I am an Indigo Child, and the world needs me now!”). We project onto religions and religious groups, and so we sideline and repress our own natural religious instincts as well as our options for meaningful insight. Electoral politics today is more about disowned flaws or deficiencies in others than about topical issues. And so on.
We ourselves created the Maya in which we dwell, where we can’t see What we are at root.
To understand projection and to use it does not mean sacred things are not valid, or that they don’t transcend the human plight. Projection is a tool that addresses human psychology, but the personal psyche that manifests that psychology has limits. As a technique, observed and meditated projection doesn’t begin to replace meditation or systematic ceremonial magick, but it offers a critical tool that aids and accelerates their effects.
Love is the law, love under will,