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Patterns in a Subtle Light

How to Order by Richard Smoley
If you insist on infallible guidance, you are going to be disappointed no matter where you look.
It can be stated as a universal axiom: if you can think of it, somebody has tried it. Nowhere is this more evident than with divination. The ancient Romans saw omens in the flight patterns of birds; the ancient Chinese, before the I Ching, read the cracks on heated tortoise shells; today, as Mary Greer's article in this issue shows, we have our choice of such devices as UFO Contact Cards or astrological dice.

But divination has taken on far more diverse guises than these. There is alectryomancy, divination by means of a cock, whereby seeds or grains are placed on letters of the alphabet; by picking certain ones, the bird spells out the response. In aeromancy, you throw sand or grain in the air and read an answer in the way it falls, while ceromancy involves dropping hot wax into water and descrying meaning in the shapes of the wax as it cools.1

Other, more sanguinary, means have long been available as well. There is haruspicy or extispicy, the time-honored (but now forgotten) art of reading the future in the entrails of sacrificed animals. For matters of great import, the ancient Druids had an even more extreme method. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus reports, "They devote to death a human being and stab him with a dagger in the region above the diaphragm, and when he has fallen they foretell the future from his fall, and from the convulsions of his limbs, and, moreover, from the spurting of the blood."2 (We can assume that even the First Amendment might not protect a diviner who tried this today.)

The articles in this issue discuss other, perhaps more familiar means of reading the future, but before we plunge into them, it might be useful to try to sort out a general understanding of how and why they are supposed to work. The most famous attempt of this kind is Jung's concept of synchronicity. Many people today hold it up as a kind of scientific theory validating divination, but it's clear from Jung's own essay that he was not presenting a triumphant explanation of all such phenomena but was rather groping toward an understanding of them.

Jung portrays synchronicity as an "acausal connecting principle" by which certain events are related not through conventional cause-and-effect but through meaning. In one famous instance, a patient was talking about a dream of a golden scarab when at that moment Jung looked up and saw a scarab beetle buzzing at his window.

It isn't entirely clear, however, what Jung is trying to say with his theory. Sometimes he sounds as if coincidences have no relation other than the meaning that the human mind puts into them. More often, though, he seems to suggest that there is some kind of hidden, occult factor at work -- the archetypes of the collective unconscious; "certain phenomena of simultaneity or synchronicity seem to be bound up with the archetypes," he writes.3 Thus in the case above, something in the unconscious caused both the dream and the visit of the actual beetle.

Jung did not really take his theory much further than this, so it might be helpful to look at other perspectives. I will set out one here, using terms from the Western occult tradition, though of course it's possible to use others.

To begin with, we might recall the concept of the astral light. This is an expression that goes back at least to the nineteenth-century French magus Éliphas Lévi, though it was possibly used before his time. As Lévi and later magicians have depicted it, the astral light is essentially mind-stuff; it is the substance of which dreams and thoughts are made.

This astral light is not matter, but it is a kind of antecedent of matter. It does not exist in some mystical plane "above" us, but interpenetrates and indeed forms the ground for material reality. (It may be what the Hermeticists call luna.) Before anything manifests in the material universe, it must first emerge as a pattern in the astral light. This, incidentally, is the theory behind "creative visualization" in all its forms: if you shape a mental image clearly and strongly enough, and invest it with enough energy, it will presumably make its appearance in the material realm.

If any event in the physical world must first appear in this fluid, subtle dimension, we should be able to take a reading on it before it comes into manifestation. And this is what divination is. Nearly all the most common means of divining use some random process for discerning such patterns; they may be as elaborate as Ifa, the West African cowrie-shell oracle whose interpretations are so intricate that they have never been written down in full, or as simple as a few lines of dots made across a page -- the basis of Western geomancy, as John Michael Greer's article in this issue points out. (We could say that randomness is the window by which we look into higher worlds.)

Though intuition is by no means excluded from these means of divination, they are rather "left-brained": in order to interpret the pattern, you must have mastered an already-formulated set of interpretations (or at least be able to look them up in a book); this is the case with the Tarot or the I Ching. Other methods, such as those involving scrying in a bowl of water or a crystal ball, are more "right-brained": they can only work if the diviner can temporarily set aside the rational, critical mind and give the intuition full play.4 Thus the human brain, when it sets aside its normal baggage of thoughts and preconceptions, can itself function as an instrument for taking readings of the astral light. After the material has arisen one can sort out its meaning. This is how one goes about interpreting dreams, for example.

That, in essence, is one theory behind divination. It of course has its variants. In one, the psychic realm is believed to have living and semiautonomous inhabitants -- the "spirits" that cause the oracle to respond in a certain way. Certain Chinese commentaries on the I Ching seem to indicate that it is operated by such spirits, known as shen. This suggests why, as Gary Lachman points out in his article in this issue, the I Ching often seems in some strange way to be "alive."

But why astral light? What does this rarefied substance have to do with the stars? The answer may help us to understand the idea behind astrology, another nearly universal means of divination (which Erin Sullivan discusses for us here). The idea is straightforward enough, though it may be a bit difficult to wrap one's mind around.

As most esoteric theories have it, there is a continuum extending from the Godhead to the most solid dimensions of reality. Though this continuum is unbroken, it is usually portrayed as having several levels or grades. The most rarefied and at the same time most universal level is that of the divine emanations or, in the words of Eastern Orthodox theology, divine "energies."

The next level is what was known in medieval cosmology as that of the "fixed stars"; today we might speak of galactic or even transgalactic forces. (Despite the many gee-whiz books equating such energies with subatomic particles and the like, I would be cautious about trying to relate any of these concepts to phenomena discovered by science.)

And then there is the level of our own solar system. This is the astral light proper, and it is reflected both in the movements of the planets and the undulations of the human psyche, both individual and collective.

Thus the subtler and more impalpable the force, the more universal it is and the wider the scale on which it operates. God is everywhere, but we may not have an apparatus sensitive enough to discern his presence. (Mystical disciplines may in fact be means of refining our inner apparatus to make this possible.) The energies of the "fixed" stars, which move only over many human lifetimes, may be more accessible; in fact it may be this level that people are touching when they claim to have contact with beings from the Pleiades and so on. But it is the planetary energies that are said to influence personal character and fate; it is these that we are scrutinizing with our astrological investigations. Readers interested in these questions might look into GNOSIS #38, our issue on the Stars.

With all this theory behind us, we can now ask whether divination works. I think anyone who honestly examines his or her experiences in this arena will conclude that sometimes it has an uncanny accuracy and sometimes gives answers that are unintelligible or simply wrong. This has been true even of the most prestigious of oracles: King Saul, you will remember, went to the Witch of Endor because "the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets" (1 Sam. 28:6-7). And the great oracle of Delphi fell into disfavor after the early fifth century B.C., when it advised capitulating to the Persians, who were invading Greece. Some Greek states followed this advice, but others didn't. They drove out the Persians, and afterwards people never took Delphi quite so seriously again.5

Here we might take a clue from contemporary psi research. In an important new book entitled The Conscious Universe, parapsychologist Dean Radin argues persuasively that psychic phenomena like telepathy and precognition have been proven in many rigorous and repeated experiments. But even when ESP is obviously involved, most guesses are still wrong. Radin relates the case of Mary Sinclair, wife of the novelist Upton Sinclair. She trained herself to guess telepathically what people were sketching at a distance. Her success rate was astonishing: "The number of successful, direct 'hits' produced by Mrs. Sinclair one year after testing was judged to be 65 out of 290 picture-drawing sessions," Radin says.6 Yet even she guessed correctly less than a quarter of the time.

This caveat also holds true for those who rely on the guidance of an "inner voice." It can be very helpful to attune to such inner sources of knowing -- as Jay Kinney's interview with Liza Wiemer indicates -- but my own experience here leads me to much the same conclusions that I have about divination proper. Sometimes the inner voice may come through with a shocking accuracy; at other times it's garbled or incorrect. Moreover anyone who investigates such things will soon find that he or she hears all kinds of "inner voices" that will say just about anything, however meaningless or ridiculous.

Does this invalidate psi or divination? Only if you insist on having infallible guidance -- and if you insist on that, you are going to be disappointed no matter where you look. You also run the risk of missing valuable insights: medical diagnoses and economic forecasts are not infallible, but they're hardly useless.

Instead I'd say that for a true picture of a situation -- particularly if it is a grave matter or one fraught with inner conflict -- you need to take a reading of everything you have access to, both inside and outside yourself. You might consult your favorite Tarot deck or start dividing some yarrow stalks, but you'll also need to consult your own reason, intuition, emotions, and instincts, as well as the advice of trusted friends.

The ancient Romans used a method called augury, in which a person would sit in a particular spot and carefully observe everything that was happening there: the flights of birds and animals and patterns of wind, as well as, perhaps, the general aura or atmosphere of the place that day. The best means of divination for the modern person may be to take a similar kind of augury from both the outer and the inner worlds, for all our thoughts and responses to a given situation are part of the pattern and need to be reckoned into the account.

Ultimately the point is not to place absolute trust in some particular form of guidance, rational or divinatory, inner or outer, but in making contact with one's own supreme principle of knowingness. This is not a voice or a spirit or a god; it is the principle of consciousness itself. And as we all know, it too is often weak and fallible. But it can be expanded and strengthened; indeed doing this seems to lie at the heart of the spiritual search. And whether we use tea leaves or Tarot cards, crystal balls or astrological charts, divination can be a useful means to this end.


1. I am indebted to Ramon Sender Barayan for these references.
2. Quoted in Peter Beresford Ellis, The Druids (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William Eerdmans, 1995), p. 52.
3. C.G. Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton/Bollingen, 1960), pp. 20-21, 109-110.
4. Plato seems to draw a similar distinction; cf. Phaedrus 244b-e.
5. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 116.
6. Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p. 66.

© copyright 1997 by Richard Smoley and GNOSIS Magazine
All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form requires permission from copyright holders.

GNOSIS #46 is available for $10 U.S. postpaid from: GNOSIS Magazine, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114-0217.

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