On the Magical Body - or bringing the Emerald Tablet to Life

A central aspect of the Western Occult tradition is the correlation between macrocosm and microcosm. The most prominent example of this philosophy is the Hermetic Tabula Smaragdina or Emeral Tablet.

What this premise expresses is a worldview in which everything created is at the same time a part and a whole: Everything is a mirror to everything it is surrounded by, yet at the same time a unique expression of this universe. In philosophy this idea became known much later as a ‘holon’. Yet over time it lost its practical value - just as most things do once they get overgrown by mental speculation and logic rather than everyday experience...

"A holon is a system (or phenomenon) which is an evolving self-organizing dissipative structure, composed of other holons, whose structures exist at a balance point between chaos and order (...) A holon is (...) simultaneously a whole in and itself at the same time being nested within another holon and so is a part of something much larger than itself. Holons range in size from the smallest subatomic particles and strings, all the way up to the multiverse, comprising many universes." (source: wikipedia)

If this sounds somewhat abstract, don't worry. We'll get very practical in this post and look at the direct implications of the idea of the holon with regards to our bodies in magic.  Before that, just to make the concept a little more accessible, let me share two widely used graphical illustrations of how to best think of holons and the hierarchy of beings they create:

Two models of a HOLON hierarchy. Each element is a part and a whole in itself. (Click to enlarge.)

Now, when it comes to practical, deep magic being mindful of the idea of the holon is critical to understand the impact, repercussions and instruments of one’s work. As a mage we are by no means the isolated, dominant male - ruling the world from the cockpit of our magical circle. This may well be a recurring fantasy orbiting the male ego - yet it has nothing to do with actual life or magic. Reality is we are a holon just like everything else around us is.

Once we experience the reality of the holon that we are, we quickly start to also realize the holons we are made up of. Our mind is a holon - carrying further holons inside it. Our heart is a holon, our blood is a holon, our skin is a holon. Everything is a whole in itself as well as at the same time a mirror of and a part of something transcending itself... You see where I am going with this? It’s a costly misunderstanding to believe that as part of the Great Work it was the magician’s ego that was turned into the mirror of the macrocosm. In fact it is the mental, emotional and physical elements he is made up of that are the living mirrors reflecting the universe he is embedded in. The ego is pretty meaningless in this whole equation. At best it gets out of the way when real work needs to be done - and stops clouding the look into the mirrors we are made up of.

Let me be really clear on this as it is so often misunderstood: Just because our body is a mirror of the universe this does not mean we would be (1) in control, (2) more important than all the other mirrors around us or (3) capable of reading the images in this mirror. It simply is - neither good nor bad; it is a feature of nature. Nothing to be proud or ashamed about - wether we currently are healthy or ill or - as most often - a bit of both. What matters is to understand that all of our actions have a two-fold direction and impact: one that flows inside and one that flows outside. Wether we intend to or not, we always work on the mirror that we are as well as the mirror that surrounds us. 

Respecting, caring for and ultimately working with our body is a central aspect of any magician who cares about the premise of micro- and macrocosm - and who aims to transcend the realm of theoretic or repetitive traditional magic. Our bodies speak to us, they carry us, they hold us like a nest holds an egg, like the back of a donkey holds its rider. In order to respect and work with them successfully we need to develop a deep and integrated understanding of what it means to be a holon - and to be surrounded by holons wherever we look.

For this matter let me refer to Arthur Köstler’s seminal book ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ (1968) where he introduced the idea of all organic matter being organized in a hierarchy of holons. In order to introduce this concept - and to overcome stereotypes associated with the general idea of hierarchy - he starts out by sharing a parable of two watchmakers. This parable is so powerful and revealing that it’s worthwhile to repeat it here in full - as well as Koestler’s central deductions about nature’s law of organization:

“There were once two Swiss watchmakers named Bios and Mekhos, who made very free and expensive watches. Their names may sound a little strange, but their fathers had a smattering of Greek and were fond of riddles. Although their watches were in equal demand, Bios prospered, while Mekhos just struggled along; in the end he had to close his shop and take a job as a mechanic with Bios. The people in the town argued for a long time over the reasons for this development and each had a different theory to offer, until the true explanation leaked out and proved to be both simple and surprising.

cover art of Arthur Koestler, 'The Ghost in the Machine'  

The watches they made consisted of about one thousand parts each, but the two rivals had used different methods to put them together. Mekhos had assembled his watches bit by bit -- rather like making a mosaic floor out of small colored stones. Thus each time when he was disturbed in his work and had to put down a partly assembled watch, it fell to pieces and he had to start again from scratch.
Bios, on the other hand, had designed a method of making watches by constructing, for a start, subassemblies of about ten components, each of which held together as an independent unit. Ten of these subassemblies could then be fitted together into a subsystem of a higher order; and ten of these subsystems constituted the whole watch. This method proved to have two immense advantages.
In the first place, each time there was an interruption or a disturbance, and Bios had to put down, or even drop, the watch he was working on, it did not decompose into its elementary bits; instead of starting all over again, he merely had to reassemble that particular subassembly on which he was working at the time; so that at worst (if the disturbance came when he had nearly finished the sub-assembly in hand) he had to repeat nine assembling operations, and at best none at all. Now it is easy to show mathematically that if a watch consists of a thousand bits, and if some disturbance occurs at an average of once in every hundred assembling operations -- then Mekhos will take four thousand times longer to assemble a watch than Bios. Instead of a single day, it will take him eleven years. And if for mechanical bits, we substitute amino acids, protein molecules, organelles, and so on, the ratio between the time-scales becomes astronomical; some calculations indicate that the whole lifetime of the earth would be insufficient for producing even an amoeba -- unless he becomes converted to Bios' method and proceeds hierarchically, from simple sub-assemblies to more complex ones. Simon (Herbert A.Simon, the source from whom Koestler took this parable and fleshed it out, note: Frater Acher) concludes: 'Complex […] systems will evolve from simple systems much more rapidly if there are stable intermediate forms than if there are not. The resulting complex forms in the former case will be hierarchic. We have only to turn the argument around to explain the observed predominance of hierarchies among the complex systems Nature presents to us. Among possible complex forms, hierarchies are the ones that have the time to evolve.'
A second advantage of Bios' method is of course that the finished product will be incomparably more resistant to damage, and much easier to maintain, regulate and repair, than Mekhos' unstable mosaic of atomic bits. We do not know what forms of life have evolved on other planets in the universe, but we can safely assume that wherever there is life, it must be hierarchically organised.”
(Excerpt from: Koestler, Arthur. “The Ghost in the Machine.

Each sub-assembly in Bios’ approach to creating a watch can be considered a holon in its own right. Equally they are a part and a whole themselves. As we can see, it is important to drop the notion of an increasing or decreasing value associated with a part versus a whole. In fact we need to drop the idea of any difference between a part and a whole entirely: Everything created is a whole when looked at it from the inside and a part when looked at it from the outside, i.e. the point of view of the larger environment. Thus, was a skilled watchmaker to look at a single holon (sub-assembly) created by Bios they would not only learn about the assembly of parts in front of them and how it managed to work together as a unit - they would also learn about the entire watch into which it needed to be fitted to take its proper place in an even greater whole. 

Koestler’s idea of nature being organized in a hierarchy of system of holons is deeply magical of course. To understand the soil this idea grew from consciously or unconsciously, we only need to compare it to the essential premises of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism - the idea of gradual emanation of the forces of creation into the realms of manifest matter. These chains of emanations all emerge from the all-soul and while reaching further and further down into creation begin to differentiate and split themselves up into smaller and smaller units of ‘souls’ or spiritual sparks. Yet, all of them resemble the original all-soul in the same way as Bios’ sub-assemblies in the parable of the two watchmakers resemble the finished watch: They are not the watch themselves, but they are at the same time a discrete whole and an integrated body-part of it. It is in this way that the microcosm contains the macrocosm or our body the universe. 

So now let’s get down to the essential questions: 

  • If each holon is a part and a whole at the same time, of which holons are we a part of?
  • And from how many holons is this thing we call ‘ourselves’ comprised of?
  • If each holon holds its own spark of spiritual consciousness, how do they influence us and how we interact with these?
  • What does treating our body with respect mean in light of this?
  • What does treating our body with integrity mean in light of this?
  • If our body-holon connects directly to aspects of nature inaccessible to our rational minds, how can we use our bodies as a gate?
  • If we set out to undertake the Great Work, how do we do it in the spirit of Bios rather than Mekhos?

See, these questions don’t need to be answered; one could argue they cannot be answered by a single, definite answer. What these questions need simply is consciousness. They need awareness as we engage in our actual practical work. They need to determine the attitude with which we approach things - ourselves, the world around us and the magical bodies we are made up of.

If we aim to connect magically to our bodies it all starts with respect and integrity. Respect for the multitude of holons we are made up of - yet we do not hold control over. As well as respect for the multitude of holons we are a part of - and equally do not hold control over. Stepping back form our everyday lives it’s quite a humbling reality we find ourselves embedded in: While we are all holons weaved together and intricately connected, none of us is the watchmaker. Of course we can tell ourselves stories about being a watchmaker. Just like any sub-assembly of the watch can tell itself stories about being the most important and most critical component of the watch... However, reality is we haven’t even glanced sight of the actual watch we are a part of. 

All we can do is integrate really well and maintain our inner stability as best as we can - while doing the jobs that are assigned to us.

Life is quite beautiful in this sense. Powers start to flow into us and out of us, just like currents in the sea. It’s quite a beautiful life once we stop identifying with our own boundaries - and begin to perceive the tides and forces that transcend us - yet still couldn’t be without us. We are all really small and insignificant; but so is everything around us. Just like every carpet is made up of millions of delicate threads, just like the magic of a watch is made up of thousands of ordinary pieces of copper and cogs. Most of all it’s quite a beautiful life once we begin to understand the immense stability built into this system of holons. Nothing can ever be really destroyed. Things might dis-assemble into smaller units and re-assemble into new units afterwards. Yet, the principle of holons doesn’t allow for complete failures or destruction. Nature never looses the ability to re-organise, to re-construct and re-vive. It’s quite a beautiful life.