Times of Illusion: Thoughts Become Things
by Maira Butt
When you get some distance from a thing, you start to see how you might have overestimated its significance. I questioned that about this series. ‘Times of Illusion’, I thought to myself, ‘isn’t that a bit exaggerated?’.
I’d had a good month since the last instalment; encountered beauty, meaning and stimulating conversation.
But I also saw the news. Watched the lifeless and bloody limbs of children flailed across debris littered with the remnants of weapons making their beneficiaries billions. I witnessed the lies and doublespeak transmitted around the world via the media – the work of individuals committed in identifying with the part of themselves that supposes This Is It. The part that says: the world is all there is and ever will be, existence is a matter of Survival of the Fittest. And Power is God.
Most common is the struggle of normal people in between these two polarities, the ones making up the bulk of the Earth’s population. Those Just Going About Their Day. Here, we are all witness to the daily pettiness, insecurity, drama, fear, anxiety, hatred and callousness. But there are those who try to guide us towards a Higher reality by prodding us to be more compassionate, more courageous, bolder and less self-pitying.
And so, I retained the conviction that as much as we engage ourselves in the reality of this world, (namely that it isn’t Heaven, that it in facts manifests more of Hell, if you take the view that injustice towards one innocent being is not worth the happiness of thousands), it is mired and enmeshed in illusion. The ways we live life seem so meaningless and mindless when we consider that we will actively enjoy all this palaver for about 6 or 7 decades and then pop off. And I maintained the absolute certainty that we were called here to do something More. Perhaps to elevate our spirits and birth the truth of the latent potential within us and all of existence.
So, I kept the title.
This part of the series touches on the power of our mind, both conscious and subconscious. New Age works have been invaluable in bringing this to the forefront of our consciousness with texts like ‘The Secret’, and the popularity of the ‘Law of Attraction’. However, many rightfully point out that a lot of it seems like cheap magic, geared towards the gaining of transitory goods and materials. Vision boards seem to exist only to glue your dream house with a swimming pool and a Ferrari on. But we can’t deny that the power of our mindset can and does change the game, completely.
I brought these thoughts to Charles Upton, a Sufi Poet, Metaphysicist, author and veteran of the counter-culture, after reading his book ‘Findings: In Metaphysic, Path & Lore’ (Sophia Perennis, 2009).
In the chapter ‘A Dialogue on Magic’ with Kamal Southall you touch on the topic of thought forms, saying ‘I suspect that thought-forms might be described as impersonal energies configured in such a way that they invoke conscious entities’. I have suspected that the ‘Law of Attraction’ works this way. Why do you feel it may be contrary to morality to use thought forms or other spiritual energies to manipulate reality or access alternative dimensions of being?
I would not necessarily say that it is contrary to morality, only that it is unwise from the standpoint of the Spiritual Path. Nonetheless it can become a violation of morality if one has received a call from Allah to give up such practices, to submit to His will and follow Him on a deeper level than before, and one is unwilling or unable to make that sacrifice. Since “acts are judged by their intent”, people attracted to using thought forms and subtle energies should be clear on why they want to do this. To make life more interesting? To search for truth? To gain power? Many times all three motives are involved. It ought to be obvious that to seek “spiritual development” for entertainment purposes is very immature, and that childishness when dealing with energies powerful enough to “manipulate reality” is extremely dangerous. A better motive is the search for truth, but such a search must be disinterested; if it is not, the “truth” one discovers will simply confirm one’s pre-conceived notions, so nothing will really have been learned. It you expect to search for truth and find it, you’d better get ready to follow it when it appears. As for the quest for power, this is the first step on the road to magic, not the Spiritual Path; the two must never be confused. In the course of walking the Path various “thought forms” will likely appear and various subtle energies be encountered; God can certainly employ these realities, and often does. These things are not problematic in themselves; the real problem is the intent to “manipulate reality.” Reality, Al-Haqq, is another name for God; whoever thinks that he or she can manipulate God is a profound fool, and will reap the consequences of this foolishness. One of the cardinal rules in Sufism is: “Don’t seek spiritual states; seek Allah.” Spiritual states (the ahwal) are sent by God, in His own time and for His own purposes; they are gifts, not acquisitions. If we hold on to and identify with these gifts instead of seeking the Giver Himself, then we turn them into idols, into veils that will hide the Truth and lure us into many dangers. Attempts to access “alternative dimensions of being” on our own slim authority will usually lead us into realms that are primarily psychic, not Spiritual. Psychic realities are never entirely free of subjectivity; the psychic plane is a kind of collective subjectivity based on beliefs, impressions, experiences. The Spiritual plane, on the other hand, is based on objective Truth because it is a direct reflection of God, who is objective Truth. The Spiritual plane is the world of the Angels; the psychic plane is the world of the Jinn, and the Jinn are a very unreliable bunch. Some are true Muslims who submit to Allah; others are demons who are in rebellion against Him. But even the Muslim Jinn are dangerous to encounter, since dealings with them may open up one’s psyche in such a way that the demons can come in later. The Jinn are also highly fascinating and diverting; it is very hard to responsibly fulfill one’s spiritual and material duties if one has become addicted to the kind of psychic experience they offer. Such experience may be able to teach you useful lessons about the structure of subtle reality and your own psychic tendencies, but nine times out of ten this sort of knowledge makes true ma’rifa, Spiritual knowledge, harder to attain, because psychic experience is immensely distracting. If you dedicate yourself to following God’s will, everything you really need to know about subtle realities and the state of your own soul will present itself in the least dangerous and the most useful way, and in God’s own time. So as I general rule I would say that a person who has not been able, or willing, put God first in his or her life should concentrate on fulfilling practical, interpersonal and social duties, and not mess with thought forms and subtle energies.
How do you explain the fact that we seem to be using a lot of these techniques subconsciously? Aren’t they a part of our inherent human nature?
You can’t really use a technique unconsciously. The psyche, the soul, the Nafs, is doing what it’s doing, whether or not we are conscious of it. It’s true that the Nafs is in touch with higher realities, psychic realities, even Spiritual ones. What it is initially incapable of doing, however, is submit to Allah, Who is Reality Itself; to begin with it is manipulative, not submissive. While we remain unconscious of its doings, which largely determine how we relate to the world and other people, it presents itself to us as inevitability, as fate. The same sorts of things keep on happening to us for mysterious and unknown reasons, over and over again; we feel helpless to prevent them or control them. That’s why it’s a very good idea to become as conscious of the Nafs as possible. One thing that really helps in this process is to have a set of external standards to follow, like the shari’ah, which the Nafs will initially oppose because she doesn’t like to be told what to do. If we can be vigilant and watch for the ways in which she sabotages our efforts to follow these external standards, we can begin to get an idea of what she is and how she operates. The other way of becoming conscious of the Nafs is through awareness of our dreams and an understanding of dream symbolism, which is a whole science in itself. Here a familiarity with the scriptures and myths and art and poetry of the world is a great help—and if we are committed to a particular religion, then the scriptures and art and wisdom-writings of that tradition will increasingly become our central guides for dream interpretation. This interpretation goes way beyond the simple notion that to dream of A means that B will soon happen to you. Symbolism is a language in itself, a language made mostly of images but sometimes also of words. A dream symbol is there to tell you something. On one end of the spectrum it is saying something about your present life and the present condition of your Nafs; on the other, it may be revealing something about the nature of Reality itself, about the Names and Attributes of God, how they operate and what they require of us.
So the idea is to become more and more conscious of the nature and activities and habits of the Nafs, which on one level is the psyche itself, and on another is identifiable with the ego, which is partly conscious and partly unconscious. The Nafs-as-ego is made up of all the things you identify with, in both the outer world and the inner one, all the things that go to make up your sense of who you are and what the world is. It is this very sense of self that must progressively be constructed on the Spiritual Path (slowly, step by step, certainly not all at once) until the Presence of Allah finally takes the place of “me”. And as you become increasingly conscious of the Nafs, its powers and its knowledge, the point will come where you will need to make a decision: are you going to submit to Allah and place the Nafs in His hands so that His Spirit can pacify it and educate it, or are you going to adopt its “techniques” and try to use them, on the basis of self-will rather than submission to God, to advance your own agendas? The one who fully commits to the first alternative is on his or her way to sainthood; the one who fully commits to the other path, in a misguided attempt to attain freedom and self-determination by manipulating the Nafs rather than being manipulated by her, has begun to train as a saher, a sorcerer. The first path leads to the Garden, the second path to the Fire—not only after death but in this very life. If you think that you can use the Nafs to fulfill your desires you have failed to realize that it is the desires of the Nafs that are being fulfilled, not the desires of your Fitra, your true humanity. The Nafs is vastly more powerful than you are, and also immensely deceptive. If you believe you can control her, that you can hitch her to your wagon and drive her wherever you want to go, she will be all too happy to agree with you that this is possible and encourage you to attempt it. She will make you think you can have power over her, precisely so as to get power over you; this is very easy for her. (Demons operate the same way; whoever has opted to use the Nafs as a source of personal power has in fact invoked them). To be a slave of the Nafs is to be in bondage; to be a slave of God is to be free.
Can you explain a little about the different ontological levels of being? You imply we seem to be accessing these when we really shouldn’t be when dabbling in these things. What exactly is going on here, in your view?
Different ontological levels, different levels of being, are what they are; we can’t avoid them or escape them because they are what we are made of. The simplest scheme of such levels is fourfold: the material plane, the psychic plane, the Spiritual plane, and the Divine, each of which is capable of further divisions—though the discernment of “hierarchy” in the plane of the Divine does not compromise the Unity of God since its purpose is to conceive and express the implications of this Unity, not to posit any intrinsic divisions in It. To become aware of these different planes of Being, to be able to differentiate one from the other, is immensely helpful on the Spiritual Path, probably even necessary. Problems develop, however, when we try to access these higher levels of Being in order to use them. Each higher level is causal to all the levels below it. A healer may be able to heal the physical body through balancing and strengthening the energy-body; a more powerful healer may access even higher levels than that, levels where difficulties may exist that have produced those imbalances in the energy-body in the first place, which have in turn affected the physical body. This way of accessing higher levels of being for healing purposes is lawful for those who are called to it, though it is not without its dangers. But in terms of the Spiritual Path, our attention should be on Allah, the highest “level” that includes all the others, the Absolute Reality. Anything less involves the error of shirk, of attributing partners to Allah by acting as if He needed help from the Jinn or the Angels or from whatever forces or beings or ontological levels you have decided to access in an attempt to do His work for Him. The best way is to responsibly fulfill your material and social duties, and to pray to and remember Allah. Once these two poles are established, which are the base and the crown of the Hierarchy of Being, then the power of Allah and the angels of Allah will begin to move between them, doing precisely what He commands, not what we would prefer or what we think would be best. He is the One who knows what is best; He is the One whose wishes do not merely affect reality, but are reality.
Hypothetically how would one undo the damage caused by spiritual attacks when one has been on this path of little or no protection? I believe many people of my generation have already opened ourselves up to these influences and may wonder what to do next.
The mass experience of spiritual attack is due to the fact that the door to the psychic plane is wide open, both individually and collectively, and it can’t be closed again over night. The first need is not to open it any wider. Ideally you should access the Spiritual plane first, and leave it up to God what psychic experiences he wants you to have or what sensitivities He wants you to develop. In our time, however, this is easier said than done, since the psychic plane has already been forcibly pried open on a mass level by the electronic media, by the shock of wars and social breakdown and environmental destruction and electromagnetic pollution and inhuman technology, by the release of nuclear energy, by various psycho-physical techniques and poorly-guided yoga practices, by the use of psychedelic drugs, and by God knows what else. So the first step is to give up seeking psychic powers, replacing this quest with the attempt to remain conscious of God’s real presence under all circumstances. You will likely not be able to do this in any constant way, at least to begin with, but your sincere intention will not go unrewarded; at least you can keep remembering more and more often to ask Him what He wants for you. Secondly, you must stop using the “powers” (or weaknesses) you’ve already acquired—and a big part of this work will simply be learning to mind your own business, to renounce curiosity about everything and everybody under the sun, and replace it with vigilance in listening for God’s commands. This may be difficult, since some of these powers will have become “second nature” to the point where you aren’t fully conscious of employing them, or can’t imagine how you could function without them; psychic powers acquired not as gifts of God but through self-willed attempts to develop them are a true addiction. A friend of mine once worked counseling alcoholics. He would tell them: “It’s so hard for you to give up alcohol because alcohol saved your life.” Of course it was killing them at the same time, but it nonetheless appeared at one point as a coping-mechanism that worked when nothing else would. The same is often true of psychic powers. A Native American shaman was once asked by anthropologists, “Why did you decide to become a shaman?” His answer was, “Because I was afraid of shamans.” You can get drawn into the world of magic and psychic technologies simply out of a misguided attempt to protect yourself from psychic attack. And while some psychic protection techniques can be helpful in the short term, they often do little to repair the rips and tears in the “etheric” or energy-body that make you vulnerable to demonic incursions, or simply too permeable to any and all psychic influences, good bad or indifferent, to the point of serious confusion; they may even make your condition worse in the long run. Some spiritual healers apparently have the ability to repair holes in the energy-body, but finding the right practitioner is a very uncertain proposition, and there’s no-one I can personally recommend. Ultimately, you can’t heal psychic damage by psychic means, only by Spiritual means. Instead of fighting the fire of psychic pollution with the fire of the Jinn (even the good, healing Jinn), you need to fight it with the water of God’s mercy. Ultimately this means embarking on the Spiritual Path as a lifetime commitment, hopefully with the help of a true spiritual master and a true lineage—though finding a true master and lineage, while separating them from the cynical charlatans and the well-meaning lunatics, is a whole other struggle and may take quite a while. Meanwhile, as you to Allah to protect you and guide you to the people He wants you to be with for the good of your soul, you can employ the specific techniques of spiritual protection that every religion provides. In Islam these include the invocation audu-bilahi min ash-shaytan al-rajim, reciting the last two surahs of the Qur’an, etc. Beyond that, be constant in your prayer and your remembrance of Allah, listen for His guidance, and be ready to act on it.
Charles Upton, a Sufi poet, author, metaphysicist and veteran of the counter-culture, developed an interest in metaphysics via ‘mythopoeia’, and having survived the social upheavals of the Sixties, and the psychic allures of New Age occultism, awakened at the end of the Eighties to the esoteric teachings of the traditionalists, eventually becoming initiated into Sufism. His critique of New Age occultism and modernism is his best-known work and is published under the title, ‘The System of the Antichrist: Truth and Faleshood in Postmodernism and the New Age’ (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Sophia Perennis has published many other books by Charles Upton. His most recent book ‘Day & Night on the Sufi Path’ (Sophia Perennis, 2015) was published last year. He is also the founder of an international movement of Muslims to combat terrorism and defend persecuted Christians called ‘The Covenants Initiative’. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Lexington, Kentucky.
This blog post is the second instalment of a four-part series entitled ‘Times of Illusion’ touching on contemporary New Age thinking and its intersections with ‘traditional’ spirituality or religion. The format of the series is as follows:
- God in the New Age
- Thoughts Become Things
- The Power of Myth
The next post will touch on ‘The Power of Myth’; namely, the psychological, spiritual and personal implications of a universal narrative.