The living mystery of any divinity is ever-present. What we call ‘gods’ are living principles that continue to incarnate both in us and in the world around us in ways that elude rigidly theistic understandings. While the divine functions are perennial, the ‘bodies’ or ‘vehicles’ in which they are incarnated often take unexpected forms, speaking as much through the ‘profane’ world as through the recognisably sacred. Indeed, they speak to us most often where we are, and not where we expect to see or hear them. Hidden in plain sight, they appear in the universal language of symbol and synchronicity, which is not bound to time or place, but emerges through the amorphous interactions between our minds and the phenomenal world.
Aaron Cheak, The Leaf of Inmortality
The Leaf of Immortality, a recent small opus by Dr. Aaron Cheak, is what can be called an excursion into entheogenic hermeneutics. The premise, as Cheak himself suggests, is to see what happens when a scholar, deeply immersed in the study of esotericism and mystical philosophy, takes Terence Mckenna-like doses of psychedelics. What you get is not your typical trip-reporting but an experience of erudite associative links with a flair for intuitive occult connections and a general dissolution of the boundaries that separate self and meaning (a kind of multi-layered archetypal possession). As psychedelics, by definition, make the depths of the mind manifest, one can expect that a scholar’s trip, specifically one occupied with the hermetic, will manifest a “meaning-saturated field”. In the same licentious spirit of “cunning linguistics” that The Leaf cavorts in, we can say that in it hermeneutics becomes hermenautics, the nascent and highly speculative field of tripping-out through the psychotomimetic effects of analogical hermetic thinking.
Cheak recounts being ecstatically possessed by the god Loki, while taking mushrooms and ayahuasca, and in a different sense by Mercury (Hermes-Thoth), while travelling with the theurgic intention of reading the Hymn to Thoth upon the statue in which it is inscribed (this while under the general “mind-fuckery” of Mercury Retrograde and an ongoing overload of esoteric info-synchronicities). These possessions area clearly a kind of modern manifestation of what Plato called “divine mania”, which he assigned to four different gods. There is well-known speculation that suggests that initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries entailed the administration of a psychoactive substance (ergot, a sort of natural LSD substance has been proposed),and it is pretty obvious that modern psychedelic intake would fit into the “mania of rites”, ruled by Dionysus (even if it’s actually a kind of dazed-and-confused substitute to ancient initiatory rites). Hermes missed out in the four-fold classification of The Phaedrus but here is a case, in our information-driven era (which Erik Davis has noted is under the aegis of Hermes), for a fifth divine mania pertaining to the god of information, who also has a trickster aspect (which might connect him with Loki) and an as aspect as psychopomp (which might connect him to psychedelic experiences, especially to ayahuasca: “the vine of the souls”).
The divine manias narrated in The Leaf of Immortality, fuelled by the contemplation of language in itself, are the essential, translucent experience of the hermetical, where words, symbols and abstract powers can be seen to be manifesting as actual individual fleshy being. As depth psychologist James Hillman has suggested, we do not live the archetype, the archetype lives us. This I think is the richest theme of the book: the moving aside of the rigid self so the divine powers can become a sheer lucency, so that one becomes “a vehicle for an energy that was.. completely Other”, otherness that is recognized as divine ownmostness. And it is not only psychedelics that can facilitate a kind of voiding (a kenosis) but even language itself as a field of resonances that unmakes the solid, separate constructs with which we identify and re-signify what we are in a more open, playful way. The divine pyrotechny of language can be used, perhaps counterintuitively, to inspire the fiery thirst for silence, where the real arcane treasures are latent, like a dragon in the deep waters.
The salient thing in both archetypal possessions/divine manias is that they are in a large extent triggered by a linguistic discharge, be it the chanting of mantra or a kind of epiphany of meaningfulness that resonantes as a numinous synchronistic field of experience —as within, so without. Paradoxically for the creative and playful energy of language -words that become worlds- to come alive (or at least for there to be awareness of it) there must be a kind of silence, a kind of darkness that makes room for symbolic pregnancy, for the Logos to light-up the virgin womb of space. Entheogenics seem to force this opening, holding the door ajar so one can sneak a peak into the divine act or, in wings of Blakean excess, fly over the Garden. They do this through a chemical coercion that releases imaginal presentations of death-like and birth-like experiences in the highly suggestible theatre of consciousness.
It is a common thread among sensible students of religion and esotericism, that there comes a point where intellectual knowledge of their subjects of study is not enough and they must look for the actual experiences, which are the only way to put to test the truths they read about (which generally speak of the pre-eminency of living experience over intelectual knowledge). There are different ways to approach this need for “field experience”, as it where, but in our present culture the search for experiences of the divine is most commonly pursued through psychedelic tripping. Certain psychedelic substances that are referred to as “entheogenic” seem to deliver consistently experiences of the numinous, the mystical, the divine. But there is a caveat to this path that would seem to make the mystical easily available. As Cheak point out, entheogenics are like “being placed on a mountain top”, where you can gaze at a ”spectacular panorama” that is realized as “your birthright”. But these experiences are not the actual attainments. Cheak suggests that they might give certain insight and even certain keys that then one must work with. The risk is fixating on the experiences and believing that they can be sustainable, that they are a solid ground that can be tread on and built upon. The substances do not actually hold the divine within, but they can make the divine manifest through resonance: the divine is not within or without, in plant or man, but is all perception and experience in itself (as Eckhart pointed out “the eye with which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.”)
I would even argue that apart from showing to some people the dazzling possibility of the living experience of the divine, as a kind of less that subtle wake-up call, psychedelics experiences are not actually useful in a mystical path. They do not generally show how to climb to the “mountain top”; something that must be done through practice —as Cheak acknowledges in the book, being himself a practitioner within certain mystical traditions. On the other hand, they can be an obstacle for this so called “ascent” in the sense that they form coarse habit patterns, by relying in exogenous induced ecstasy, that must be dealt with (as one wishes to open and keep open the divine eye of imagination) and are prone to confusing the actual experience of the divine (as recognized in living mystical lineages) with its psychedelic mediated images. This is specially important for serious practitioners that tread a path where gnostic or mystic experiences are well charted and are part of certain stages that lead to actual attainment, each one identifiable by what can be called contemplative peer-review (based on the cartography of previous masters). An example of this confused psychedelic appropriation is shown in Stan Grof’s conflating an experience he had smoking 5-MeO-DMT with the experience of the Dharmakaya (the Buddha-body of absolute truth). However wondrous and meaningful smoking the psychedelic venom of a toad can be it most probably isn’t the same as experiencing the Dharmakaya, and saying it is very misleading, as it might make psychonauts think entheogens actually are a reliable way to enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhism has a term for this kind of experiences —which frequently arise in meditation— “nyam”, and warns not to fixate on them.
Cheak takes a kind of tantric approach to psychedelics and in general to experience itself, where, as he says in the dawn of a word pun, “the poison is the gift” (the German word “gift” means “poison”). All experiences, all problems are actually “a locus of play”, an emerging opportunity where the divine can be recognized through an openness to the mysterious. In this sense Loki is recognized as the divine playfulness of appearance (sanskrit lilla), the trickster, the instigator (related also to Set) who, through disruption, unleashes energies that enable a deeper wholeness. The poison is alchemically rendered as medicine when everything is seen as play. In his trip, Cheak realizes that:
all things were effortlessly resolved in an interplay of two opposing currents —an anabasis and a katabasis— according to Heraclitus’ maxim: “the path up and the path down are one and the same”.
The Hevajra Tantra famously states: “One must rise by that by which one falls”. In tantra this stairway is generally desire, that which binds also releases (similarly in Hermeticism the powers-emotions enthused by the seven planetary lords bind but also release the soul when used appropriately).The so-called poisons of the mind are used as energy and transformed into their unborn wisdom radiance. Cheak realizes that “Just as the mosquito seeks the joints, the zones of power, so too the problematic elements of my life and work occur precisely in the areas that signify the greatest potential energy”. Curiously the mosquito is seen as an agent of Loki —the tantric view is able to see that shit is actually gold. Same taste. The most lowly things are sacred, so one can seek and see the divine in the so-called “profane”, “hidden in plain sight”. As Philip K. Dick pointed out, in our times the divine seems to lurk in the slums and in the slime: “The true God mimics the universe, the very region he has invaded: he takes on the likeness of sticks and trees and beer cans in gutters –he presumes to be trash discarded, debris no longer noticed”. Dick’s gnostic paranoia can be understood also in a Jungian sense —making use of the shadow as a kind of nigredo or primal substance of transformation— or, as Cheak suggests, by taking notice of the joints of things and the sinewy and messy forces that linger where the roads cross, see also the hermetic correspondences, the Vedic bhandus, the stringing of meaningfulness that is a kind of ecstasy of the co-emergent.
Aaron Cheak is known as one of the foremost experts on the work of Reneé Schwaller de Lubicz, one of the great esotericists of the XX century (mysteriously involved in the case of Fulcanelli), and the book holds an interesting revelation of how he got drawn into Schwaller’s work, suggesting the deepest imaginable connection. Cheak has been one of the expounders of Schwaller’s mysterious theory, based on his study of Egyptian soteriological practices, that human consciousness is stored in the femur bone as a kind of fixed salt, which enables the further evolution of consciousness as the bedrock of palingenesis. One might say that Cheak knows Schwaller to the bone.
The second part of the book, an essay called Curiouser and Mercurioser: Ruminations on a Hermetic Retrograde, can be read here.
Read also: Non-Dual Alchemical Traditions: an Interview with Aaron Cheak
by Alejandro Martínez Gallardo @alepholo