The Vertical Ascent - on Mysticism and Personal Growth - Part 1
This essay in two chapters is exploring what in Kabbala is often referred to as the 'rainbow path'. A cryptical reference in most books only - referring to a pathway of direct mystical ascent. To begin with, and in order to ground our exploration in everyday life, we'll be looking at the contemporary field of adult learning - and a related philosophy and practice of facilitating deep personal change that emerged from it recently.
In reflecting on the parallels between Western mystical practices and modern research findings on personal development we'll stumble across a few timeless principles for any kind of 'vertical ascent' - whether pursued through a cognitive or spiritual lens. The alchemy behind it remains the same.
In a world that increasingly is becoming obsessed with speed, efficiency and 'return on investments' even in the spiritual sector, reflecting on the value of getting stuck, being lost and committing to a path we cannot foresee or control seems more important than ever.
At the heart of the rainbow path we'll learn to appreciate a single timeless principle: The most direct path to reconnect with the divine is not to control the journey, but only to hold on to our single minded intend. After all, as all explorers and adventures know, the straight line is a trap.
.:. 1 .:.
Over the last decade a new trend emerged in the field of adult learning. Of course like most modern trends in the arena of human behaviour it was sparked by insights made by neuroscientists. For many decades they had believed the human brain stopped developing once people came out of adolescence. They simply couldn't find evidence for significant mental changes - as tracked in the physiological make-up of the brain - after that formative period. This in return led to the wide-spread perception that after leaving the storm of one's teenage years and slowly settling into one's adult personality around the age of thirty-something our actual core personality would need to be accepted as a relatively stable factor, or more simply put, as a given.
For professionals in the field of adult learning - a vast arena including as diverse subjects as executive leadership coaching as well as intercultural training for refugees - this seeming scientific fact was used for decades as a cop out from aspiring more fundamental behavioural changes with their adult clients. A whole industry and essential strand of psychology simply settled for less - and accepted that at best they'd be able to refine, adjust and smoothen off rough edges of adult personalities. Change was aimed at behavioural competencies rather than the psychological make-up in which these competencies would be rooted. The ladder of mental growth that had led us all from baby to toddler to teenager (a process called individuation in Jungian psychology) was understood to suddenly stop and plateau. And there was little hope for finding another Jacob's ladder extending one's ascent further.
Now, for any practicing magician who has worked through the basics of their elemental rituals we know such attitude towards life and ourselves is complete bonkers. In fact the ancient Egyptians and Greeks knew it already and created a whole segment of their society around the concept of 'adult learning'. Yet, of course they were smart enough to label it much more sexy - calling it 'initiatory rites' or 'mystery cults'. For anyone with sufficient gift and grit there was no end to refining the vessel of their mind. In fact continuously evolving this vessel so it could hold more complex and advanced divine substances of power was the whole point of creating lineages of priests and related initiatory rites in the first place.
But let's return from the ancient Greeks to ourselves. It is important to acknowledge that while these cults may have gone to the grave millennial ago, the actual power of their practice continued to prosper in our magical tradition: Most practitioners who begin their magical path these days still get to work with the elements as one of their primary topics of building skill and understanding of what magic truly is - and how they themselves as humans fit into it.
At one stage or another what unavoidably happens as part of this process is that the magician realises how they themselves are constructed of elemental components. Not only their physical body but also their cognitive mind. In most cases this realisation is born from messing things up: wearing an elemental fire talisman for too long and screwing up a relationship we actually care about due too our suddenly hot temper, falling in love with a water spirit on an elemental journey and realising a little too late how one's emotional boundaries weakened and blurred, or self-inducing migraines or dietary problems by forgetting about a bond we one's created with an elemental air being in the hope they'd help us through our next round of exams... Luckily the possibilities to mess ourselves up and break some glass are endless. Because that's how humans learn best. By realising how these forces not only affect our own skins and minds - but how they form the strands of the very fabric we are made up of.
We are not surrounded by spirits, we are made up of them.
The actual reason why any elemental being can work with us in such simple and yet powerful ways is because our body and mind is made up of cells derived from their substances. There literally is no differentiation between the 'inside' and 'outside' of us - except for the illusion in our own minds. And because elemental beings just like any spiritual being are not subject to our human illusions (but have their own) they can transgress these imaginary boundaries effortlessly - and affect significant change upon us.
So any well-groomed Neophyte will have had to deal with this initiatory paradox of magic: if the constituents of my own psyche are made up of spiritual substance which I can influence and even change and re-arrange through the means of magic - what is left that is truly I?
Holding on to this essential question, not trying to resolve it prematurely or just to avoid the critical tension it bears is one of the most important pieces of advise any teacher holds for their students. What is left of 'me' in a world that is entirely made up of magic? If all seeming boundaries can be transgressed by spirits - like the literal jinn walking through the stone walls of temples - what do I have left as my own intimate space of 'self'? So if anything that exists within these fleeting boundaries of 'self' can be changed and re-arranged by these all-penetrating forces, what does this label 'I' or 'me' even mean?
Once we stay with these questions long enough, eventually we realise terms like 'truth' or 'reality' refer to a relatively unstable interplay of countless spiritual forces. And as much as we liked to be in the role of the guardian or referee on how these forces interact, the truth is mostly we are much more affected by them than able to affect them from our end. For most days of their lives even magicians are on the receiving end of the cosmos. And mainly that is because the boundary between ‘our-selves’ and the spiritual cosmos is fragile and fleeting. We are but a loosely cohesive field of consciousness made up by mesmerising peacock-tail of spirits that all uphold us.
So while we don't hold any scientific proof for it - except for our own praxis and presence - as magicians we always knew the idea of an adolescence that actually ends is complete bonkers.
Well, and then of course magicians are only flawed humans as well. And so we look back on countless examples of our Western occult ancestors still trying to create a safe space for themselves… A space that defies this constant change and evolution, a ring or circle of stability that they wrung from the powers of creation they themselves were subject to. Maybe that is the parting of the ways even where we all get to choose our path? When we face the essential decision to either approach our work as a mean to fortify our selves against the constant onslaught of the spirit world - or whether we open that circle of ‘I’ and accept that any work that transcends ourselves will be initiated from a place that is void of human ego?
.:. 2 .:.
But let's get back to our present day adult-learning trainers, executive coaches and neuroscientists. The trend I referred to at the beginning which has emerged in their field of study is the following: they ultimately begun to differentiate two different modes of learning or development. One they call 'horizontal development'. This one contains all forms of technical, functional or behavioural learning that enriches the individual with new and additional skills. Learning how to fly a plane, how to build a micro-processor, training on becoming a surgeon, a chef or any other profession are examples that fall into this category of learning. If you went to school, college or any evening training class you are deeply familiar with it.
The trick was to establish a second category that most adult learners are unfamiliar with. As you can guess this second category was labelled 'vertical development'. Here we are not talking about growth in the palette of skills an individual has mastered - but about the expansion of mental capabilities they have to process complexity.
Ironically the metaphor that is often used to illustrate the difference between these two modes of personal change or learning is the one of a vessel. While horizontal development focusses on pouring more substance into any given vessel, vertical development focusses on expanding the shape of the vessel itself. Here is a brief contrasted overview of these very different modes of personal growth:
Looking back in your own life, it shouldn’t be too hard put your finger on moments of vertical development in your own biography: Maybe you remember how you pulled yourself out of an episode of depression, maybe you learned how to hold on to important relationships rather than ruining them in moments of anger, or maybe you began to see your core-families values and convictions in a different light over your life-time - as made up agreements of a relatively small collective of people rather than God-given rules. Either example will represent a significant shift in how you experience the world as well as yourself within it. And each shift of vertical development will have come with a realisation that this beast we call our world is way harder to manage and much more complex than you previously had believed… Vertical development in its essence is about discovering layers of reality, texture of the land we walk in, that previously we had been blind to. It is not about seeing something new or unknown, but it's about seeing something you had believed you were deeply familiar with in an uncanny new light.
For the field adult learning the simple differentiation of horizontal vs. vertical growth has huge implications. Just think of the positive and meaningful connotation that all sorts of hardship and discomfort take from this viewpoint? And it all opened up because neuroscientists finally discovered that indeed the human brain can change quite dramatically after people turned thirty.
Unfortunately though unlike adolescence this process does NOT happen organically for most of us. I.e. it takes much more conscious involvement and effort than the automated development from toddler to teenager. And where it still happens, in most cases it presents itself as a dead-end street before it finally begins to offer new vistas and opportunities. For vertical development to take place, we have to get so utterly stuck that we are okay to give up on the current version of ourselves - before we can even begin to see glimpses of a different one.
Looking at this differentiation from the viewpoint of our Western occult tradition there is another really interesting aspect to it. It reveals itself when we look at these two different modes of development through the lens of our own craft - and slightly change the column headings. Take a look at this table - and see what it does for you in reflecting on your own practice?
It’s fascinating how our brains like to keep us dumb and avoid their own vertical growth. They literally hate the process of being re-arranged in their patterns to be able to process the world in a slightly more complex light. Let me illustrate how much they actually hate it: It's like going into the cellar of a huge library and asking its chief archivist to change all of the labelling system they had been using for decades - 'only' to allow for further cross-references and connections the previous system couldn't bring to light. How will the archivist respond? With a lot of passive aggressiveness first of course. He’ll be doing anything to avoid the request, to overhear it, delay it, etc. Only once he realises he cannot dodge the bullet, will he begin to lament and argue - point out all the valuable assets of the current organising system and the huge amount of effort it would take to change. All the processing power that would be crippled while in transition, etc.?
See, there are so many excellent reasons not to change when it comes to truly fundamental levels of growth — i.e. vertical development. And that is why pain, discomfort and fear feature so high on the list of essential requirements for vertical growth to happen. It’s the actual level of pain and discomfort we experience that determines whether holding on to the status quo any longer seems to be an option.
The critical role fear and adversity play in this process is also the reason why 'vertical development' just like any kind of mystical development cannot be sanitised. Such level of personal change cannot be scripted or brought to the classroom, it evades all human attempts to package it up and ship it in neat polished boxes. It operates only when fuelled by the right mix of courage and fear. By fear of failing ourselves or others we love. And by the courage to overcome ourselves in order not to end in such place. It requires the courage to let go everything we had accumulated before. Just as much as the fear that nothing will be left (of us) unless we do so. Courage and fear are the literal two sides of the same coin. Or as they say: the simple truth is that freedom means having nothing left to loose. Whichever way we turn it - at the end of day both vertical development and the mystical path require the empty, open hand.
Now, you could argue, isn't magic a truly wonderful craft? It's the only practice I know of that over time will get most of us into so much trouble, that it automatically creates the soil for vertical development. It scars and stings and burns so badly and yet holds such bright promise of the future that it's bitter-sweet poison is the perfect drug to get addicted to. And if you do become an addict at some point inevitably you'll either go down or pull yourself out on your own hair. And that is precisely what vertical development is all about. The person that returns from the darkness we threw ourselves into, won't be the same as that entered.
The difference between the classical mage and mystic is that the latter won’t control what happens in darkness. They walk into their fears nakedly. By not controlling the outcome and neither the journey - but only holding on firmly to their spiritual intent - the mystic exposes themselves to a far greater level of change than any classical magical rite could ever do. Walking the mystics' path not the mages requires much higher levels of courage as well as readiness to confront one's fears.
In the next chapter we'll dive into more specific findings of what it means to embark on a journey of vertical development or ascent.