The Vertical Ascent - on Mysticism and Personal Growth - Part 2


.:. 3 .:.

The mystic mainly strives to ‘ascend upwards’ towards the temple in order to gain pure experience of the divine; the magician instead aims to mainly strives to ‘draw down’ these energies in order to manifest them in the everyday world.
— Will Parfitt, Die Persönliche Kabbala, p.240

Such classical differentiation relates back to the Medieval polarity of immanence vs. transcendence. The work of the mage - attempting to ‘draw down’, to involve and subdue spiritual forces to their will - is aimed towards immanence. The root of this word stems from the Latin ‘immanere’ which is translated as ‘to dwell in or to remain in’. The work of the mystic instead is one of transcendence or sublimation, of releasing the divine sparks from their material place of dwelling - including his own soul. We find the root of the word transcendence in the Latin verb ‘transcendere’ which literally means ‘to climb over or beyond, to surmount or overstep’. It’s in this spirit that the mystic not only aims to ‘overstep’ the realm of the material but first and foremost his own personality.

For the magician the world exists because of his will; for the mage instead it exists despite his will.
— Will Parfitt, Die Persönliche Kabbala, p.235

As expected we find the same differentiation in the dynamics of the ideas of horizontal vs. vertical development. Here is what we learned in the previous chapter about these two modes of working on ourselves:  

  • Horizontal development is aimed towards expanding the reach and remit of our personal selves. It is not questioning us in who we are, but rather equipping us with all the required tools, skills and practices it takes to successfully master the world we have been thrown into. In order to progress from Neophyte to Adept in the realm of horizontal development we have to be prepared to get our hands dirty and involve ourselves deeper into the substance of this world. 
  • The dynamics of vertical development work quite the opposite way. Here we are not challenged to walk deeper into the cave of the world, but to climb out of it and actually over the entire mountain it is a part of. The mage works to fulfils his will, the mystic to overcome it. In the exact same vein vertical development requires us to give up on our current world-view, convictions and way of being. It challenges us to stand naked - and walk out of the circle that previously confined our old selves. 

Now, whether we work as mystics or in a more mundane setting let's take a closer look at the latter kind of growth. The process of 'ascending vertically'. 

Later on we will explore some mystical techniques. Before that, however, I recommend we turn to Dr. Robert Kegan - now retired Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Let's take a look at what he found as part of his thirty year study on adult learning from which the concept of vertical development first emerged: 

A toddler looking down from a skyscraper will call out: ‘Look, there are so many tiny people down there!’ That is because at this stage of their cognitive development the child cannot understand the concept of elevation and height as it applies to physical objects. It simply does NOT SEE the distance between itself and the people on the street - instead it sees their smaller shapes in the most literal sense and thinks they are ‘tiny people’ rather than people far away. As a result the biology of the human eye - not being able to see distance but only its effect on objects - 'has' the toddler, rather than the toddler 'having' it.

The root of any way of knowing (what philosophers call an epistemology ) is an abstract-sounding thing called the ‘subject-object relationship.’ Any way of knowing can be described with respect to that which it can look at (object) and that which it looks through (the ‘filter’ or ‘lens’ to which it is subject).
— Robert Kegan

As part of their natural development children discover the world as an increasingly complex place. Instead of judging everything by the way it looks in a literal sense, they discover many subjective filters that originally were too close to see. The child looked through them, rather than at them. As an effect the world they find themselves in over time grows increasingly complex and difficult to dissect. 

Herein lies the crux of vertical development: at first sight it seems like a loosing game. Any time we move forward on our vertical ascent the journey begins with us being proven wrong, with us accepting that part of the reality we had lived in is an illusion. Step by step we discover more subjective filters that ‘have us’ rather than us ‘having’ them. As anybody who has raised kids knows - growing up is a damn hard business. You bleed dreams, phantasies and imagined powers on this path more than you can care to count.

And that is what makes this process so scary: We mistake the process of taking out our subjective filters with taking out our selves. In disrupting the bond between something that ‘has us’ and ourselves we think we are losing a part of us. If we do this repeatedly we actually might get the impression to ‘shrink’. There is less and less of ‘us’ and so much more of the world around us. 

Courage involves the ability to take action and carry on even when we are afraid. No matter how big or consequential a given step may be, that step cannot be said to involve courage if we are not somehow afraid to take it.
— Robert Kegan

So the loss of the familiar and personal is the currency the mystic pays in for taking a more objective look at the world - and themselves within it. That’s how they climb out of the cave. By being prepared to look at the world in a more piercing, self-less light.

.:. 4 .:.

Time to throw in a practical example! Well, this one actually might go to show how not to approach your vertical ascent. And yet, I guess, it does shed a light on how easy it is to step away from subjective filters through mystical practice... 

In the late 90s my now wife and I were on a vacation in Tuscany/Italy. I was deep into my studies of Kabbalah at the time and - knowing my wife and that this was meant to be a vacation - I also knew I would only be allowed to take with me a fraction of the books I wanted to. Thus amongst a few other books I selected a thin volume on the 72 genii. 

A few mornings into our vacation I began to practice on one of the 72 genii. Somehow randomly I had selected ___. 

That morning we had actually stopped at the ruin of an old farm house, my wife to take another morning nap in the car and me to sit down on a stone in the fields and call to the angels. After all they were angels - how bad could their effect be? See, one of the filters that 'had' me back then and that I can see clearly now, is that my preferred method of occult research at the time was to hold a up match to anything. If eventually 'the thing' lid up and took fire, it clearly seemed to work. True to the spirit of vertical development I needed to get myself quite badly burned and thoroughly stuck, before I could break free from this bias before I ruined myself.

On that September morning sitting out in the golden Tuscan morning sun, things clearly caught fire. Yet, this fire's flames were cold as ice. I called for the angel ___ for roughly half an hour. First in a prayer, then constantly repeating my adoration and its name in the low grumbling of a swirling mantra. I felt the first effect then, yet it took me a few more days of practice to fully get me into trouble. 

I guess it was in the second week that I realised I had grown completely cold inside. Surely this was meant to be the best time of the year, the time I had looked forward to for months. And yet here I was, dis-interested in everything, standing next to myself, an observer to my own life, while all the glory and richness of the Tuscan autumn was waiting for us. All the things that normally made my heart sing seemed to have gone quiet. I was eating the food I normally loved, I smoked and drank more than I normally would have just to taste life again - and yet everything tasted bland and numb. 

And in that coldness I began to see things I had not seen before. For no reason it felt like I had fallen out of love with my wife. In the absence of all romance, I realised every morning she actually looked differently. What had seemed like a single person - and one I had loved madly just days ago - suddenly seemed a changing hive of possibilities, like a glacier changing its formation and colour almost invisibly over time. A friend visited us, and even he looked differently. Over long car rides he shared many of his life problems at the time - and I could see through them in a way that was astounding to both him and I. The world presented itself in a crystal clear, sharp light that seemed to pierce through all love and emotion. And yet I could see through things in almost uncanny ways. With the help of the angel I had stepped away from all filters, none of them 'had' me anymore - and yet in doing so I had also stepped out of the world that had been 'mine' before, including the love to my wife.  

Reflecting on this episode I still feel conflicted. My wife and marriage mean a lot to me - probably more than anything. And yet here I was - discovering the boundaries I wasn't prepared to over-step. If this was the level of 'transcendence' required to further ascent on the vertical ladder than I would have to drop out. I stopped calling to ___ and concentrated on the mundane and re-awakening my emotional body. It took several painful weeks before I could see my wife again in the light of love that I had lost. If this was a subjective filter that now 'had' me again, then so be it. It still was the best thing that had happened to me in my life, and no mystical promised land could convince me to let go of it.

I hope this personal example helps to illustrate this in particular: the path of the mage and the mystic are intertwined. Looking at the difference in their workings - one aiming towards immanence, the other towards transcendence - we cannot be led astray to make an either-or choice between the two. Or else we'll loose what makes us both human and divine at once.

What we are presented with here is one of the most essential polarities of the Western path. We depend on both: the stability of the immanent human self, as well as the de-stabilizing effect of pulling us out of our world and even our own skins in following our divine nature. One hand holds on to, the other one opens up to let go. One foot on the ground, the other one raised to move on. That's how we walk. One swing, one step at a time. 

Only the hermit in the cave, only the monk in seclusion can afford to open both hands at a time, to lift both feet off the ground - and to fully let go of their human selves. For most of us who want to stay grounded in their own heart, in their love for families, food and friends, we have to hold on with at least one hand to what makes us human in the end - as flawed and limited as these things might seem under the angel's cold gaze. 

As magicians this means we are aiming to balance our attachment to chthonic as well as celestial spirits - as both form the substance of our bodily and mental cells. If we do not want to rip the being apart we have incarnated into then our service has to nourish both of our natures: the mage and the mystic, the goetic and the theurgist, immanence and transcendence, stability and liability, the circle and the triangle.  

Unsurprisingly we find the same need for an 'and' decision through the lens of vertical growth. The polarities have different labels here of course. Instead of ‘chthonic and celestial spirits’ or ‘immanence vs. transcendence’ we simple speak of the rhythm between struggle and truce. 

.:. 5 .:.

Nobody ascents vertically in a continuous stretch - just like nobody climbs a mountain in a straight line or without taking a break or even making camp for several days if the weather turns bad. It’s the balance between struggle and truce or losing our (old) selves and rediscovering our (new) selves that determines how far our ascent will reach. Here is a graphical depiction of this process that highlights three key principles: 

  • We all start from a place where our ability to see the world around us is hugely distorted and coloured by our subjective filters. In fact for many of us throughout their lifetime the world remains a mirror of their own (distorted) face, rather than a window into wild and foreign territory. Climbing the vertical ladder means to widen that window - and allowing the actual world to come into the foreground of our experience.
  • As we climb the vertical ladder we aim to alternate between stages of struggle and truce, stability and lability, immanence and transcendence. As practitioners of the Western path we can leverage tools & practices of the mage to achieve the former stage (focussing on self), and equally we have access to contacts & rites of the mystic that facilitate experience of the latter stage (focussing on overcoming self).
  • Thirdly, neither a fixed timeline nor a definite end can be assigned to this process. Some of us might spend decades in a state of struggle or truce - feeling completely locked into it and identifying with a certain pattern of existence. Then the unforeseen happens - or maybe we invite it in through a particular act or rite - and suddenly we are pushed onwards in our ascent.    

Remember the example above? Had I called for the angels a single time - and been more sensitive to observing the change they created, it probably would have struck a healthy balance between struggle and truce. Between respecting where I was at that point in my life, and pulling myself out of it. Yet, I continued to call on them for more than ten days, several hours a day. No wonder I fell down from my ascent like Icarus from the sun.
Now, whether you are climbing the spiritual ladder of the mystic or the cognitive ladder of vertical growth, there are a few essential factors that you’ll depend on in this journey. Some of these factors are challenging - the literal thorns in your side, the pain that keeps you going or that make turning back no option. Others are supportive - lifting you up, holding on to you and pulling you back into ‘truce’ when the struggle turns to intense. Together they form the fuel in our engine of ascension.

Here is a simplified overview of these factors for both kinds of ascents:

At the beginning we called out that in cabalistic literature the path of vertical ascent often is referred to as ‘the rainbow path’. That is because it is the path that leads from Yesod into Tiphareth (25th Path) and beyond that right through the void of Daath into the highest triad (13th path). It is a path marked by temptation, surrounded by dangers and often illuminated only by grief. It is the path the classical mage avoids - by taking the longer route through each sephirah instead. And yet it is the path the mystic aspires - shooting the arrow of his faith in a straight line towards the divine. 

The Twenty-fifth Path is the Intelligence of Probation of Temptation, and is so called because it is the primary temptation, by which the Creator trieth all righteous persons.
— Sefer Jetzirah

Looking back at what we discovered about the nature of the vertical ascent - how much it depends on the experience of adversity, discomfort and being stuck with one's back or head against the wall - one thing becomes incredibly obvious: The Devil is an essential spiritual ally of the mystic. Without his thorns and chains and poisons none of our ancestors would ever have begun their long and daring mystical ascent - or progressed in any meaningful way on it.

The sign of the 25th path is Sagittarius, the mythical archer, half human, half animal. What we will never know is whether the arrow it draws is charged by the hunger of the beast or by the spiritual longing of its human heart. Does its arrow shoot for game or does it shoot for the gods? One will nourish it, the others will tear it apart. 

When we walk the rainbow path this mythical bow is placed in our hands. Every day anew. The wisdom how to aim it and when (not) to let go of it, is what only the Devil can teach us.  

If you want to pray, pray to your invisible Self: it is the only god who can answer your prayers. The other gods hand you stones instead of bread. When your invisible Self appears in you as an entity, you will recognize it by the fact that it will cast a shadow. I myself did not know earlier on who I was, until I saw my own body as a shadow.
— Gustav Meyrink

Want to read more on the 25th path and its trials? Lucky you! Here is a full in-depth article on the being that is guarding this liminal realm. Enjoy the journey and keep on traveling.