Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
While I was visiting central Mexico a few weeks ago, a friend invited me to hike up a modest-sized mountain. I was cautious because I’d recently had occasional vertigo. I decided to go on the grounds that if the dizziness became worse in future, I might never be making such a hike again. And I’d long wanted to ascend this particular cerro.
So, four of us set off one sunny morning and while one woman dropped out because the climb was too demanding for her, the remaining three of us scrambled over rocks and pulled ourselves up by tree-roots till we got the summit and could look down on the vultures coasting on thermals below us. My vertigo didn’t appear and apart from some breathlessness and aching knees, I felt fine. When we got down, I was in a great mood that prompted me to buy lunch for the others.
After coming back to Toronto, I went to see my family doctor, in case the vertigo indicated something that needed attention. After checking me for ten or fifteen minutes, he found my old heart arrhythmia was worse than it used to be, and my pulse was unusually low. He suggested I might have had a heart attack.
Cue the inner scream, perhaps accompanied by the screeching violins from the Psycho soundtrack.
Long story short – no, I hadn’t had a heart attack. You can’t really climb small mountains after such an event, and next day, a stress test on a treadmill confirmed I feel better after exertion, not worse. But I’m now undergoing tests to check the problem(s), and determine how best to control them. I have one of those nuisance afflictions of the aging (I’m 68), which gradually make us less energetic and mobile. And of course, with all this focus on a vital organ, one which has always represented an irrational measure of anxiety to me in any case, my own mortality is in question just as this year hits its solsticial death-point, and its calendrical one too in about a week.
The Book of the Law has seventeen references to death; it doesn’t shy away from the topic. But so much of Thelemic theory and practice refers to living life fully (II, 22: ” Be strong, o man! lust, enjoy all things of sense and rapture” and so forth), while the quotes on actual death are often used by people to disregard concerns about encroaching intimations of mortality. Perhaps more to the point, North American culture in general is queasy about death and dying, despite efforts to bring it more into mainstream thinking since Elizabeth Kubler-Ross began publishing her work two generations ago.
One reason I like Mexico is that the culture is far more comfortable with the notion of death. Apart from the Days of the Dead festival at the start of November, people generally express their relationship to the dead and to dying more freely than in the English-speaking parts of the continent. Gaily decorated skulls or Catrina images are sold as souvenirs in the markets, and cemeteries are much gaudier than here, where sober stone-slabs usually mark the final homes of our dead.
If True Will involves the expression of all aspects of our existence, then beyond it being about loving as we desire, exceeding by delicacy as we party, and folly against self being a lie, it also must include the fading out of life. The diminishing of organic life is a mirror-image to all that comes earlier; it’s a period of review and realisation, and the gradual opening of a level of mystery that words don’t describe very well.
I’m not particularly afraid of death per se, but the preceding decline is something else. My own mother took ‘an unconscionable time a-dying,’ and a few years ago I watched a friend go from cheerful vigour to pallid-skinned exhaustion as colon cancer (which wasn’t diagnosed till his final week) drained his life. In my own age-group, it’s increasingly common to come across acquaintances dealing with varying degrees of fatigue or distractedness as the diseases of later years take hold, and the smiles come less readily.
So, I won’t pretend I’m philosophical about the constraints I’m personally facing. The body has its own needs, its own limited consciousness, and its reactions to disease are fearful. Noticing, or simply identifying, the part of ourselves that looks on and considers the whole business interesting and a means of accelerating the maturing of the non-temporal side of our nature, is difficult when physical dysfunction keeps intruding with fanfares of anxiety. It doesn’t help that often, other people tend to insist a stricken person must regain wellness, as if passing on were some kind of failure, not an inevitability.
My cardiologist thinks my own condition is manageable, and that I don’t need a funeral plot yet; but the fact is, death usually follows a cumulative breakdown of bodily systems. Anyone over fifty becomes aware of this. It’s frustratingly unavoidable to be preoccupied by your own creeping debility, and I understand better now the urge some older people have to talk about their operations or hospital experiences.
Much of life, after all, is about fear. The world beyond home is scary to a small child, bullies and mean teachers upset us at school, economic uncertainty is a constant for anyone with a family, or even for a single person. Anybody’s future will entail hazards and setbacks. Fear is our teacher. The anxiety of fading bodily vigour is a part of the experience of True Will in the later stages, not an unfortunate irrelevance. “Death is forbidden, o man, unto thee,” said Aiwass in the Book (II, v. 73). But that was easy for him to say: he didn’t have a body anyway. Aleister Crowley did, and his own heart finally gave out one day in 1947.
The point to make here is paradoxical. There is no philosophical stance, no spiritual insight, that counters or cancels the fact that checking out is kinda messy. The personal self feels helpless, and only the influence of the Neshamah, the supernal level of consciousness, upon the deeper levels of the self-conscious Ruach, has much utility. Perhaps some incarnate bodhisattvas can handle it all without contradictions, and with equanimity; the rest of us have to extract significance from what happens, and see each stage as one more permutation of True Will. Despite the persistent idea that somehow we get to define True Will, True Will itself defines what we conventionally think of as our personal selves.
The body will cry that it has to face its decline and ending, and we can’t deny that side of our existence; but True Will is rooted outside of time. The “Ah heck, more symptoms” moments are part of coming to know that, it seems.
Crowley had not much to say on the topic of dying, and he wrote little as his own life was ebbing in the mid-1940s. While I’m hoping I won’t have anything pertinent to add for some time, the reality of the last decades of life being a time of decline and health problems needs to be opened up. To understand the full vector of a lifetime, the whole passel of phases and stages, is part of comprehending True Will and widening our relations with the Being at the root of each of our lives. Writing that this evening is my own memo to myself to say more as the years flow onward.
Love is the law, love under will,