Archive for November, 2012

Active Imagination Is the Essential Task of Spiritual Development

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 18, 2012 by Alexander Duncan

De via per empyraeum

In the lowest grade of the Order of the Golden Dawn (G.D.), which is the Outer Order of the A∴A∴ or the Great White Brotherhood (a.k.a. the White School),[1] the Student is required to develop a comprehensive intellectual mastery of general spiritual philosophy, a.k.a. the perennial philosophy. In the next grade of Probationer, corresponding to the qliphoth of the Cabala, the aspirant is required to obtain a scientific knowledge of his own nature and powers. The basic practice of the grade of Probationer is the Magical Record. The Probationer is encouraged to pursue the task of the grade in whichever way he or she chooses. As a result of this process of self-analysis, the aspirant will emerge from the grade of Probationer with an enhanced understanding of their True Will, which will guide them in their subsequent work.

The foregoing two grades are largely preparatory in nature. Neither grade corresponds to the sephirot of the Tree of Life, and are therefore technically outside the system.

Upon the completion of the task of his grade, the Probationer is admitted to the grade of Neophyte, which is the first grade of the Outer Order proper, corresponding to the sephirah of Malkuth on the Tree of Life. Malkuth is the lowest sephirah of the Tree of Life, pendant to the whole system, corresponding to matter and mortality and the element of Earth. Malkuth in turn corresponds to the fundamental chakra of the Indian system, muladhara, wherein is hidden the kundalini energy. In order to progress on the path, this energy must be activated or “awakened.” Malkuth is directly connected to Yesod (9), Hod (8), and Netzach (7), but not to Tipheret (6) or the higher sephirot. Jungian psychology posits four fundamental psychological functions: sensation, thinking, feeling, and intuition. Malkuth receives the influx of and synthesizes all of these faculties. The arrangement of the Tree of Life demonstrates precisely how the ego has become detached from its own higher centre (Tiferet).

The essential task of a Neophyte is to ascend to Yesod, attributed to the Moon and Air, via the path of Tau, attributed to Saturn and Earth. In the system of the A∴A∴ the work of this grade is to obtain control of one’s nature and powers. One does this primarily by means of what is expressed, in the somewhat archaic language of the A∴A∴, variously as the “control of the Astral Plane, Journeying in the Spirit Vision, and the formulation of the Body of Light.” Crowley’s use of this rather traditional and symbolic language has, however, led to some misunderstanding, especially with regard to the ontological status of these experiences, although in Liber O Crowley himself warns the reader against attributing any ontological status to them whatsoever. On the other hand, Crowley’s recognition of the primacy of this task is yet another demonstration of the extraordinarily profound penetration of his understanding of the nature of the path. Since Crowley’s time, advances in comparative studies, depth and transpersonal psychology, and neuroscience have cast considerable light on this task and what it actually involves. We now know that the brain has a mental map of the body that constitutes a “mental body” that is coterminous with the physical body but also capable of being abstracted from it, since it is not actually physical. In fact, we experience this mental body every time we fall asleep. In the dreaming state, the dreamer typically experiences himself or herself in a body. This is the mental body, also referred to as the “double” as well as the “desire, dream, etheric, kinesthetic, luminous, radiant, spiritual, or resurrection body.” This experience can be consciously cultivated. Such conscious cultivation of the mental body is the task referred to in the curriculum of the A∴A∴ and the first and fundamental attainment of the Order.[2]

The association of the mental body with spiritual development is archaic and probably primordial. We find it in shamanism, where the shaman is said to “travel” or “journey in the spirit vision” to other worlds or dimensions of experience following a “spiritual crisis.” It is described in the earliest Buddhist scriptures as one of the “psychic powers” that result from success in meditation. C.G. Jung discovered the importance of the cultivation of the mental body in the context of psychotherapy as a result of his own experiences at about the same time as Aleister Crowley. Jung called this the technique of active imagination, which he developed between 1913 and 1918. The concept of active imagination did not originate with Jung, however. The significance of the imaginal realm (alam a-mithal) was also recognized in Islam before its decline into fundamentalism. According to Avicenna, imagination mediates  between and unifies human reason and the divine being. This mediating quality has two directions: on the one hand, reason, rising beyond itself, can attain to the level of active imagination, an activity shared with the lower hierarchies of the divine realm. According to philosophers of this tradition, the trained imagination can access a “nonspatial matrix” that mediates between the empirical/sensory and the cognitive/spiritual dimensions. Thus, the A∴A∴ starts with a very different premise than the Asian systems with which may otherwise be compared. Active imagination has been called “meditation in reverse” and the “volatilization of the fixed.” As a universal system the A∴A∴ shares a common ancestry with all other schools, but especially the Asian schools that are based in actual spiritual experience, but in its doctrines of “Skrying in the Spirit Vision” and the “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” the special characteristics of the White School emerge that differentiate it from the Black (Theravadin Buddhist) School especially, viz., the concept of the True Will, i.e., the superior telos of the metaphysical point of view vis-a-vis samsara. In other words, life and existence have meaning and value and are not merely things to be overcome and qualitatively and permanently transcended, based on the dualist error that reality can be divided against itself (see Bhikku Bodhi, “Dhamma and Non-duality“). Confer the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of the bodhisattva, which Crowley also incorporated into the A∴A∴, and the Tibetan Buddhist “seal of the yidam.

Contrary to the rather naive explanations often presented by occult writers, the development of active imagination is not a “satori” characterized by the conscious dissociation of the “astral body” so-called. In fact, Crowley himself dispensed with this approach in the Vision and the Voice (Liber 418), in which he simply projected his awareness into the desired symbolic “space.” This misunderstanding has caused many would-be aspirants to fail at the first test, for the path of Tau is the first task on the Tree, whereas full mental dissociation is an advanced meditative attainment.[3] In fact, consciously seeking to dissociate the personality at the beginning of the path is a recipe for a psychotic break. Crowley’s use of the term “body of light” is also problematic. In the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism the advanced practitioner has formulated a “body of light,” a.k.a. the rainbow body, that is a supreme state of spiritual perfection (see Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Rainbow Body). This attainment lies far beyond the grade of Neophyte of the A∴A∴ and pertains rather to the Supreme Order of the Silver Star (S.S.). Indeed, it is virtually synonymous with enlightenment itself. Crowley’s concept converges with Dzogchen, however, in that Crowley sees the path itself as the development of the body of light. In the Pali Canon the Buddha also refers to the creation of a “mental body” as a result of the attainment of the fourth jhana.

The technique of active imagination is essentially an imaginative projection of the mental body together with the reciprocal experience of the imaginal realm. In this state one is able to perceive aspects of the psyche and reality not normally apparent to the physical senses, to realize insights, and to obtain teachings. In this state one will typically perceive unfamiliar landscapes and archetypal symbols as well as apparently sentient beings with which one can communicate and from which one can obtain teachings. This is a skill that can be learned and developed, and is analogous to “lucid dreaming” except that it is entered into from the waking state. It can evolve into an intensely eidetic experience. Robert Masters, who had the gift of eidetic imagery, apparently naturally, could produce an involving two or three-hour “movie” internally, that he experienced as fully real and could “enter into” and interact with at will.

In order to succeed at the practice of active imagination one must cultivate an attitude of mind that is simultaneously open and skeptical in the proper sense of the word – neither accepting nor rejecting, but simply observing with perfect, unbiased objectivity, what presents itself to the imagination. It is also beneficial to cultivate the phenomenological attitude, in which one brackets the experience of the psyche as an experience in its own right, without being concerned about its ontological status  (there are many non-physical realties, of which  mathematics, the foundation of science, is the preeminent example, thus the “subjective” and purely “psychological” qualities of an imaginative experience are no more proof of their “unreality” than the “transitory” and “ephemeral” nature of the human body is evidence of its. Everything is equally real and unreal, samsara and nirvana simultaneously. A dream is no less “real” than going to work, except that a dream is more fleeting. To say that a thing is unreal because it is more fleeting is like saying that a humming-bird is a mirage. Whitehead’s Process and Reality is a useful antidote to this wrong view). At the same time, one must avoid the contrary fantasy that everything one imagines is true. As stated above, the technique of active imagination is a process and as it is cultivated one will typically find that it develops in the direction of ever greater profundity and truth, culminating in experiences that are truly transcendental. But one must never abandon the critical attitude. There are disasters even at the apex of the spiritual pyramid, as the large number of guru scandals attests.

The technique of active imagination is greatly facilitated if it is practised in a certain way, in a certain type of environment. By following a regular sequence of steps one can develop a technique of inducing the state of active imagination, after which the experience can be documented, developed, and deepened. Consistency of technique will establish a training regimen. Crowley did not recognize any practice not properly documented in a Magical Record. In this context it means keeping a journal of each of one’s active imagination sessions, with date, time, and relevant observations. Essentially, the goal is to induce a state of mild sensory deprivation, physical relaxation, and lucid awareness, combined with the intention to “open oneself up” to having an interior experience. The sensation is rather like the sensation that one experiences when one just wakes up from a dream, and tries to gently will oneself back to sleep and enter back into the same dream. It is like hypnagosis, but is not transitional. The hypnagosis is the state. Sometimes it works. The mind must be absolutely empty, devoid of judgement or expectation. It is useful to describe the experience aloud, thus creating an auido feedback loop that makes the experience more memorable.

Active Imagination Technique

1. Find a quiet, dark place. Night is a good time to work on this practice.

2. Turn out all of the lights.

3. Some may like to light incense to purify the atmosphere.

4. Since one is entering a light trance, the body temperature will drop. Covering the body with a light cover or robe is recommended.

5. Place one’s body in a position where one can completely forget about the body, other than lying down, which tends to put one to sleep.

6. Cover the eyes with a blindfold of some sort. Some may wish to use earplugs, others might not.

7. Close the eyes.

8. Relax the body thoroughly, using any one of many mental relaxation exercises that are available.

9. Empty the mind while concentrating on the awareness.

10. Project one’s consciousness into the mental space. Continue to relax the body and simply be aware.

11. Open the mind to the possibility of perception. Keep the mind empty, open, alert and concentrated, but unfocused.

12. An intuition may manifest in the form of a feeling, a thought, or a sensation. For most people, the experience will be mostly visual. Whatever comes to mind, allow it to come. Optionally, describe each experience aloud as it arises, being aware of all of the senses.

13. Allow yourself to take twenty minutes or more to actively explore your environment, engaging freely with what you experience. Allow whatever comes, to come. Don’t judge or concern yourself about whether the experience is “real” or “true” or not. Follow the experience and see where each experience leads. If you feel that your experience is too banal, aspire to a higher level of experience. See where and how to open that space in yourself. Respect your visions. They are given to you by your deepest self. They are not arbitrary or meaningless.

14. Continue to cultivate this practice. It takes months and years of work to truly develop this spiritual practice. Since the practice of the technique of the active imagination – a much superior term to the old A∴A∴’s somewhat antiquated language – is the essential practice of the Order, only some familiarity should admit to the grade of Zelator based on an essentialist understanding of the Tree of Life. Progress through the grades is itself a progressive development of the Body of Light, until Crowley’s term does integrate with the Dzogchen ideal. Thus, the fundamental task of the grade of Neophyte is the intensification of the awareness of the body (similarly, the Buddha said that the basic meditation is meditation on the body. The great Theravadin scholar Buddhaghosa identifies this doctrine with the dharma itself). Visualization of the body as a luminous energy being (malkuth), meditation on the essential emptiness of the sensation of the body (yesod), intellectual analysis of the nature of the body as a subatomic society of independent entities (hod), and aspiration (netzach), all facilitate this realization.

Active imagination can be approached with an open mind and no preconceptions, or one can use the state to explore a specific symbolic “space.”  This is often done by imagining a symbol as a “doorway,” and passing “through” it. One can practice active imagination as a form of spiritual development, by imagining oneself “rising on the planes.” This is a specific practice of the grade of Philosophus, attributed to the path of Samekh. Rituals can also be practiced in the state of the active imagination.

The practice of the technique of active imagination is a skill like any skill. Indeed, it is one of the highest skills, akin to the vocation of the artist if not higher. To think that one can “formulate one’s body of light” in a singular experience is a delusion that invites disaster. To play a guitar with facility takes years of training. Why should the spiritual path be easier or less subtle? The Jung Institute recommends that one practice active imagination initially for 20 to 30 minutes daily for 30 days in order to establish a basis for further practice. Fifteen hours of practice should suffice to establish one’s “magical universe,” which can become the basis for further working.

Skills may be subdivided into skills, and the skills most involved in the development of the practice of active imagination include deep relaxation, cultivating mental emptiness, concentration, and visualization. Each of these can be developed separately using special exercises. Thus, Liber O states that success in asana (control of the body), pranayama (mindfulness of the breathing), and dharana (concentration of the mind) are a prerequisite of success in the development of the practice of active imagination.[4] Visualization practice is strongly recommended. Eidetic imagery involves the realistic, enduring perception of three-dimensional objects in the imagination and appears to be a universal potentiality of the brain. This faculty can be consciously developed in itself. Today, to facilitate understanding and study, one might consider audio or video recording as an extension of the Magical Record. Since the truth of the symbolic does not lie in its particularities but in the universal gestalts that underlie it, with rare and sublime exceptions, the creation of a repository of experiences that can serve as a database for comparative study will facilitate progress. This would be in accord with the original goals of Scientific Illuminism too.


There are nine essential tasks that lead to the Portal of the Inner Order of the Rose Cross (R.C.), corresponding to the paths of the Tree of Life (the sephirot correspond to the work of each grade). These, and the practices to which they allude, are as follows:

Tau. Active imagination (stupidly and rather meaninglessly referred to as “astral projection” by the vulgar).
Shin. The death-rebirth experience.
Resh. The illumination resulting from the foregoing.
Qoph. Divination. Also: memory of past lives.
Tsade (Thelemic attribution). Kundalini yoga and corresponding awakening.
Pe. Destruction of thinking.
Ayin. “Sex magick,” evocation, and the consecration of talismans (the awakening of the magical power).
Samekh. The out of body experience (advanced active imagination). Spiritual development.
Nun. Mahasatipatthana (essentially, hyperawareness of body, feelings, consciousness, and mental contents). Also: “meditations on the senses and the sheaths of the self.”[5]

Most of these attainments are comprehended within the general category of mindfulness meditation, the highest form of which is Dzogchen, with ngondro as the probation, thus bringing the Thelemic and Buddhist systems into alignment.


1. There are three great schools of Masters. The three schools differ in their ultimate view of the nature and significance of existence. The Black School, associated with Gnosticism in the West and Theravada Buddhism in Asia, rejects existence entirely as essentially illusory. The Black School should not be confused with the Black Brotherhood, which is not a true initiatory school at all. See Magick Without Tears. The Yellow School neither affirms nor rejects existence, but maintains an attitude of adaptability towards it, without actually affirming its nature. The Yellow School is largely associated with Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Finally, the White School regards existence as “fallen,” but capable of redemption and ultimately an essential aspect of reality. This view is associated with Christianity, the mission of whose founder Crowley claimed to fulfil, the so-called “pagan” mystery schools of antiquity, and certain “libertine” schools of Gnosticism. The Tibetan Kagyu school is also referred to as the White School. The source of the Kagyu school was the great Indian yogi, Tilopa (10th-11th centuries CE), one of the 84 mahasiddhas. Gampopa (1079-1153) founded the Kagyu school at the beginning of the mappo and was also known for his controversial public teaching of Dzogchen.

2. “The essence of the technique of Magick is the development of the body of Light, which must be extended to include all members of the organism, and indeed of the cosmos” (Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice, p. 203. Cf. p. 153.

3. Nevertheless, the full out of body experience (OBE) is easy to induce in the right circumstances. These are, however, difficult to produce. If one immerses oneself in a tank of warm salt water, in which all visual and auditory sensory inputs have been completely eliminated, one will experience a spontaneous OBE in short order. Lying on a bed vibrating at high frequency in a sensory deprivation chamber also approximates this effect. The “witches cradle,” experimented with by Jean Houston and Robert Masters, is yet another way. Another method of achieving a comparable effect is spending ten days in a perfectly dark and silent chamber, the so-called Dark Refuge. This practice corresponds to the rite of initiation of the grade of Neophyte of the A∴A∴. Finally, the OBE may be induced by the combination of a blindfold and the ingestion of Salvia divinorum, a herb that is legal in many countries.

4. It is easy to be intimidated by the jargon, but in fact all that Liber O is saying here is that a comfortable posture, relaxation, and concentration are required to succeed in the practice of the active imagination. Liber O also recommends the systematic study of symbolism, for which one can do no better than study the works of C.G. Jung and his followers; visualization; chanting; and self-purification. The pan-Indian practice of ngondro presents a fundamental practice that integrates similar elements. More advanced yoga practices are taught in the grade of Zelator.

5. The sum of the sephirot corresponding to the grades of the Outer Order is 34 (7 + 8 + 9 + 10), a great number of Jupiter and the magic constant of a magic square consisting of 4 x 4 cells. The sum of the letters is 1350, which is 27 x 50. In Cabala, 50 are the Gates of Wisdom (or Understanding) as well as the number of the Gates of Impurity. Fifty is also nun, the final letter in the series, and therefore the highest task, represented by the scorpion stinging itself to death and bringing itself back to life (mahasatipatthana). Twenty-seven is the highest knowledge of the “fine material” world (rupaloka). In Buddhism it is the sacred number, 108, divided by 4, and thus the number of grains in some Buddhist rosaries. Pythagoras and Plato say it represents the Cosmos. In Cabala it is the total number of letters (counting finals). According to the Incas there are 27 roads to El Dorado. It is also 3 x 3 x 3. Twenty-seven + 50 = 77, “the Sublime and Supreme Septenary in Its Mature Magical Manifestation through Matter: As It Is written, an He-Goat also” (Liber 333). These associations are extremely suggestive.

Crowley discusses the work and tasks of the Order in Liber Collegii Sancti (unpublished during Crowley’s lifetime), Liber Graduum Montis Abiegni (March 1911), Liber Viarum Viae (March 1912), and in “One Star in Sight” (1929). The author has also attributed the essential methods of shamanism to the lines of 777 here. The tasks of the Inner Order correspond to mem, lamedh, kaph, yod, teth, heth, and zayin, the sum of which is 124, viz., 4 x 31 (the equilibration of AL). 124 is also the sum of eight consecutive prime numbers. This sequence is summed up in zayin in exactly the same manner that the sequence of the Outer Order is summed up in nun. They are summarized below, based largely on “One Star in Sight”:

Mem. The sacrifice of the self to the true will.
Lamedh. Moral equilibrium.
Kaph. The revolution of the wheel of force (?).
Yod. The acquisition of perfect self-reliance: Also: energized enthusiasm.
Teth. Sex magick (the formula of the beast conjoined with the woman).
Heth. Self-consecration through self-sacrifice (the ordeal of the Abyss).
Zayin. The transcendence of opposites (coniunctio oppositorum).


Ahsen, Akhter. Psycheye: Self-Analytic Consciousness – A Basic Introduction to the Natural Self Analytic Images of Consciousness (Eidetics). New York: Brandon House, 1977.

Bodhi. “Dhamma and Non-duality.” 1998.

Chogyal Namkhai Norbu. Rainbow Body: The Life and Realization of a Tibetan Yogin, Togden Ugyen Tendzin. Trans. Adriano Clemente. Arcidosso, Italy: Shang Shung Publications, 2012.

Corbin, Henri. “Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal.”

Crowley, Aleister. “Liber Viarum Viae sub Figura DCCCLXVIII.”

———. Magick Without Tears. Ed. Israel Regardie. 1973; rpt. Temple, AZ: New Falcon Publications, 1994.

———. 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley Including Gematria and Sepher Sephiroth. Ed. Israel Regardie. 1973; rpt. New York: Samuel Weister, 1977.

Masters, Robert. The Goddess Sekhmet: Psychospiritual Exercises of the Fifth Way. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1988.

Sivananda. Kundalini Yoga. 9th ed. Shivanandanagar: Divine Life Society, 1991.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Corrected ed. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. 1978; rpt. New York: Free Press, 1985.