Spirituality, whether in the form of classical religion or fringe occultism, often fails to provide any fulfillment to the seeker. I think this is because it largely consists of seeking meaning in symbols, images, names, deities, or words, but these things are empty vessels which merely point to something else or remain empty. The whole experience is often little more than a process of aesthetic seduction by evocative images, or ominous-sounding words (often foreign), with nothing behind the aesthetic seduction.
Many try to relate to God, but if we’re assuming God or something like it is real, people end up relating to a mere image of God instead of God’s objective reality, which is quite distinct. If God is real, then s/he is far too expansive to be summed up by one thought. It’s questionable if a person could even actually think of God in a single thought without being untrue to what God is, and relating to God requires a very different approach than merely thinking of him/her/it.
Sometimes the images/symbols/names/deities/words point to other images/symbols/names/deities/words (vessels). This leads the seeker through a “conversion career” of moving from one thing to another, each conversion acting as a sugar high that later leaves an aching vacuum requiring another conversion. (I’ve also seen people do this with leftist groups, suggesting a similar problem about the fetishistically theoretical nature of the groups.) Despite the cycling of vessels, significance lies ever elsewhere.
This conversion career can be done by changing religions or ideologies (ideologies also have many buzzwords to obsess over). However, a conversion career can also take place within a religion or ideology, with the seeker obsessing over different internal parts of it. A fundamentalist Christian fanatic could switch up which Bible verse they are currently fixated on, and feel the transition from one verse to another as some kind of God-sent revelation. Actually I am almost positive this is a common phenomenon.
Switching vessels is not the problem, though. The real problem is investing in vessels at all. If a seeker sticks with one vessel consistently, then they are still trying to find substance in something which won’t provide any, because the fountain of spirit is always the Self. Again the seeker is caught in a vicious cycle, like quicksand, because they invest themselves more and more deeply in the empty vessel. They (again) find (brief) fulfillment in each increase of devotion, and then come up choking and empty-handed, frustrated and unfulfilled, proportionally to the extent of their emotional investment or devotion. What they put in, they hope to get back out in more than a momentary way, but they don’t.
Again, the fountain of spirit is not the vessel but the Self that assigns the vessel significance. Possibly spirit is to be found in this emotional investment, this assignment of significance, this act of Self pouring into something else. But maybe the rough truth is that a life of devotion to symbolic vessels is not the way to do this, and is just not a fulfilling or even spiritual life at all. So what is?
There are two ways as far as I can tell to reach the divine state. The first is sensory. It can involve anything from ritual to meditation to learning to sex to drugs. You don’t even need to be extreme in the last case; a few beers or cigarettes achieves the eternal now, for me personally anyway. Socializing is a curious combination of symbolic-and-sensory, because you enjoy the sights and sounds of other people but also invest significance into them as we might a vessel. (Of course people are actually real living entities but they are still entirely independently of your own willing, the import of which will be explained later.) Learning and studying philosophy are a similar combination-type – they are aesthetic because you discover the beauty of patterns in the world, and also you learn something potentially useful for whatever your life mission is.
I have come to be rather dismissive of the sensory approach, for reasons similar to why I don’t currently involve myself with god-names or words. I suspect it is a temporary high, devoid of substance. To be sure, the divine state is often fleeting and impermanent even in the best of situations. You try to carry it with you as long as you can. But what we really need is something which at least performs a little better, something not reminiscent of “spirituality’s” vicious cycle of investiture and withdrawal. For the sensory is identical: once you attune yourself to it and seek your fulfillment through it, it owns you. You will always seek to increase the intensity without the increases ever offering what you are truly looking for.
Hegel was right, and so by extension I suppose Marx too. Thelema is right, and the Temple of Set is right, and above all Nietzsche was right. The only spiritual path I have ever found actually creates a genuine moment of value-added (but which is not merely a moment) is when spirit steps down from its pedestal and digs its hands into the materials of Earth. The expression and manifestation of Self in an external object. Accomplishment. Labor. Work. Struggle. Art. Where spirit and matter combine.
In modern life this can be difficult. As The Onion wrote, “find the thing you’re most passionate about, and do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life” and went on to drive home the personal effects of forty-hour-a-week slavery. But whatever you do, you must do it with feeling. Do you go to work every day thinking your job is stupid and meaningless? It’s okay, so do most people; according to a June 2013 Gallup poll, seven out of ten US workers feel actively disengaged at their jobs.
The key, as you work, is to remain continually mindful (better, emotionally aware) that you labor not for the work itself but for some higher intention, as a means of surviving to accomplish your life’s mission. The Thelemites have beautifully reversed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: you can’t find meaning if you can’t eat, but you might as well not eat if you can’t find meaning. They embody this in their pre-meal brief ritual: instead of “saying grace,” they call it Saying Will:
What is thy will?
It is my will to eat and to drink.
To what end?
That I may fortify my body thereby.
To what end?
That I may accomplish the Great Work.
It is true that, in order to stay fulfilled in this way, the seeker must keep doing it, making it uncomfortably similar to the previously-rejected methods. The difference, which you can feel, is that instead of feeding an endless recurring hunger with each attempt at fulfillment producing an ever-escalating crisis of panic and desperation, something else happens. As opposed to sensory or symbolic paths, in willpower-based or goal-based paths the seeker begins each round of the hungry cycle already feeling partially full. Rather than filling a vacuum that increase in intensity with every loop, the seeker knows and feels that they are instead already in possession of the foundation of their past achievements and efforts. They now expand and build upon that foundation with further achievement or effort. It is a real process of growth.
Does this mean we must reject all sensory indulgence or ritual or divine symbols? I haven’t figured this out yet. The two paths seem vaguely compatible but you will notice them frequently get in each other’s way. Of course as spirits are are nonetheless trapped in these meatbag bodies, so I can’t just stop eating as a willpower exercise, not more than 1-3 weeks anyway. But the interference of the paths with each other is most commonly experienced as a competition for your time and attention: work or pleasure? So while I’m not sure the sensory life must be abandoned, the time spent on it will probably have to be reduced to pursue the path of effort.
Still – maybe it is right to take it all the way. Imagine if the world was reduced to a shoving match between yourself and some nameless opponent in a dark closet. No sights to see, just you and them. The world pushes you. Do you push back? Do you push back like you mean it? Do you stop reacting and start acting – switch from defense to offense? Are you fighting to win? How far are you willing to go? This is all life really is, this test of your willingness to struggle. So along with the rest, the existentialists were right, too, and we must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Meditation and ritual are gray areas. Ritual is clearly about divine symbols, but perhaps also involves some serious willing, which makes it a possibly useful combination, a way of flexing the spiritual muscle. Meditation is more complicated. In some ways it is more of a mental exercise than spiritual one. The two overlap, yet still should not be confused. It’s true that meditation is similar to a physical workout except that it uses and strengthens attention, focus, concentration, and through those things willpower. But then the Buddhist model uses meditation as something like an escape from the world, with Nirvana as the end goal itself, as if clearing your mind and diving into that emptiness is fulfillment, or the seeker’s final destination. In this way Buddhists have replaced pouring yourself into vessels with pouring yourself into blankness. You end up trying to invest significance and emotion into it in the same exact way, but once more, it will only ever truly be your attempt to make it mean something and nothing more.
My advice is not to learn discipline, devotion, or your life’s purpose through meditation. If you are trying to begin with ritual then I suspect you will become especially caught in the symbolic quicksand. Put them off and revisit them later, or use these things as supplements. Instead, live your life. Try things. Do things. Do work. Test and strengthen yourself against that most difficult gatekeeper of all: cold indifferent matter itself. Live for goals, not gods, though if you are a believer it is the surest way to God.
Above all, your soul only exists when you are using it. Really it is better to think of your soul as a verb, not a noun. It’s something you do. Only by living like this does your soul’s substance become concentrated enough to possibly endure the wall of death and have a shot at eternity.
“As a waterfall becomes slower and more floating as it plunges, so the great man of action will act with greater calm than could be expected from his violent desire before the deed.” — Nietzsche