Gnostic Practice 1: Working with the Mind

Having spent some time musing over creative ways for seeking to understand Gnostic mythology, I thought it was time to get down and dirty with some practical means for experimenting with the current.

The ways of awakening are, of course, manifold! No one should place a limit on the way in which we as humans are able to gain greater insight into the nature and purpose of our lives. If this were to happen for you while surfing or drinking excellent coffee then all-the-better! Please bear in mind that these are serving suggestions only; read the primary texts for direct inspiration, and tune in to your gods and inner allies as to how to integrate any new insights gained.

In the history of Gnostic revivalism over the past 150 years, much emphasis has been placed on ecclesiastical structure and the role of sacramentalism within the churches birthed from this impulse. In my view the form that these groups adopted partially relates to the French Catholic context from which this revival emerged, but it is also connected to a belief that the sacraments of the church provide a powerful and established means through which gnosis can flow (cf. the work of Leadbeater and the Liberal Catholic tradition).

While I might personally struggle with some of the aesthetic and structural aspects of such an approach, far be it from me to criticise the rich tradition such churches embody, and the benefits that others might gain from it. We must remain awake to not allowing fine robes and titles to distract us from the true work of gaining gnosis, but as a Chaos magician I more aware than most that all of our spiritual traditions are ‘made up’ at some point in response to our encounter with Mystery!

My own approach to Gnosis has been decidedly less wordy and formal than either the ceremonies of Sacramentalism or the pseudo-masonic rubric of the Golden Dawn tradition. In contrast I have sought to utilise a form of “deep listening” practice, that has its origins in both contemplative prayer and Buddhist inspired mindfulness practices. It’s probably fair to observe that my own approach and ecclesiology resemble that of the early Quaker and Shaker traditions (though sadly with less furniture construction involved!).

Working with Stillness

In my view, both the gnostic cosmologies and the insights of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths were born out of a profound unease regarding the pain of human experience. Mindfulness practice is far from imagined utopias or having to adopt beliefs that jar with our experience of reality. In contrast it lays down the rather stark challenge of staying with the present moment and what arises for us in that moment. In my own experience, in being attentive to what arises and the dynamic of that process, accessing greater insight or gnosis becomes possible.

Paying attention to Comtemplation has its attractions

Contemplating one’s position in the world

What stillness-based approaches allow us to do par excellence is create a sense of distance between ourselves as thinkers; and the thoughts we have. For the mindfulness practitioner such a challenge is less about the suppression of unwanted thought, rather it seeks a more neutral ‘just noticing’ that acknowledges that as thought arises, so eventually it will dissipate. This stuff gets kicked-up because it is in the nature of the human mind to do so; we can get caught-up in trying to construct a coherent narrative from it, or we can wait to see if a deeper, less reactive wisdom emerges.

In recent studies focused on positive psychology much has been made of the role of flow or fluidity as an optimal state in which a person is able to access a greater sense of personal happiness and creativity. Somewhat paradoxically mindfulness practice appears to enable this through a greater acceptance of life’s unpredictability and the sense of uncertainty that this can cause for us. With its historic roots in a Buddhist philosophy that saw the challenging nature of life as being unavoidable, mindfulness practice seeks to provide us with skills for managing our internal struggles more effectively. With its insights with how to work with both impermanence and our sense of existential dissatisfaction (Dukkha), the Buddhist tradition has much to offer those of us seeking to evolve a contemporary gnostic pathway.

While both the Buddhist and gnostic perspectives sought to grapple with how we humans respond to our experience of suffering, the Buddha’s teachings do highlight the danger of trying too hard to locate cosmic causation. As Illustrated by the parable of the soldier injured by an arrow, we should focus less on who shot the arrow and more on our need to deal with the reality of being wounded! Those of us trying to engage with gnostic creation myths should probably heed such sage advice. The teaching stories of the Gnostics may help elucidate our human experience, but sometimes the truly wise realisation is that there might be limits on what we can truly know and that we have to learn to live with uncertainty.

Gnostic Pathworking

As well as utilising more passive, receptive states of consciousness, it can also be helpful to have some more active, change focused strategies in one’s personal magical armoury. In seeking greater access to the type of spacious stillness that we might associate with the Pleroma, the Sethian Gnostics sought to employ a type of active pathworking technique that enabled them to explore the internal terrain of the psyche in the belief that it paralleled the aspirant’s journey up and through the various Aeonic strata:

The human mind is a kind of miniature representation of the aeons that emanate from the ultimate God… For this reason, the Gnostic could also contemplate God by contemplating his or her own intellect…” (Brakke, The Gnostics, p.80)

This seems to reflect something of the Hermetic insight, “as above so below”. What I also find interesting (and encouraging!) is that such an approach makes few grandiose claims of access to immediate mind blowing epiphanies; rather it recommends repeated and reflective exploration of this territory as a preparation for full union with the divine.

In working with such cosmic schema we allow the construction of an internal psychogeography. These maps can become constrictive over time, but at best they provide a means for making greater sense of incoming gnosis, and tools for integrating new insights more effectively.

These big, beautiful brains of ours can be realms of both joyous discovery and confusing torment and in parts two and three of this practice series I will spend some time considering how bringing together work with both the body and the emotions is critical in seeking balance. As the mighty Gurdjieff before me has observed, it is only in the integration of all aspects of our being that we can live most skilfully.


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