Thelema is a philosophical, mystical, and cultural system based upon a seemingly simple premise: that every person is a divine projection of the Universal All and, as such, has within him or her a True Will that is the expression of one's deepest, most genuine self. This genuine self acts in perfect accord with all of Nature—and so by laboring to apprehend and manifest this Will, one is able to live a life of greater harmony, fulfillment, and joy.
The Unicursal Hexagram represents the Great Work and is a common symbol for Thelema.
In many ways, Thelema is a perfect union of Eastern and Western modes of thought. It is Eastern in that it posits a harmonious way of being that flows in accordance with nature, closely akin to the idea of the Tao or wu wei. It is Western in that it celebrates individualism and promotes the full expression of the unique self.
Although the components of Thelema have existed for millennia, a system did not exist under that name until the early 20th century. In 1904, the British mystic and social provocateur Aleister Crowley penned a short text titled The Book of the Law (often abbreviated as Liber Legis, Liber AL, or simply AL). Crowley eventually chose this enigmatic text as the foundation of his system of spiritual attainment, which he called Thelema.
The Aleisterian system is largely a blending of Western occultism, Eastern mysticism, and a mix of Victorian-era libertarian philosophies, with a strong focus on personal liberty. Its system of practice—which Crowley termed Magick—was eventually to draw from many existing religions and spiritual traditions, most especially ritual thaumaturgy, Yoga, and the Hebrew Kabbalah with its Tree of Life, along with concepts drawn from various practices that were popular in Crowley's day, such as alchemy, divination, and astral work.
Although much is written about it, Thelema has no precise definition, leaving it largely up to the individual to interpret. In part, this vagueness is due to the fact that most Thelemic writing comes from Crowley, and therefore exists within the cultural, scientific, and ethical context of Victorian England. The task for many Aleisterian Thelemites, therefore, is to determine which of Crowley's concepts to keep and which require modification to fit within the modern world and to meet individual needs. Thelema is undergoing rapid changes in recent years because of this trend.
It is possible, however, to identify common principles that are generally accepted within the larger Thelemic community. Those presented below are generally derived from Aleisterian concepts and are by no means definitive or exhaustive, but do provide a basic framework within which to develop a beginning understanding of Thelema.
True Will must be discovered
Many associate Aleister Crowley with Darkness, but his eyes were always towards the Light.
Crowley, like most spiritual teachers, recognized that one's Will is generally buried beneath a thick layer of what can be called Individual Ego—the conscious sense of "I" that feels separate from the Universe and is a complex mix of beliefs, values, and norms derived from socialization and various life experiences. A Thelemite is therefore one who seeks to break through her "conscious programming" in order to reconnect with the secret self, thereby becoming aware of her true, unfiltered nature. This process is called the Great Work.
The techniques used to accomplish this difficult task fall under the general term Magick, and traditionally include practices such as yoga, invocational ritual, and astral body work. In more recent years, Thelemites have been starting to include other, non-"occult" methods to accomplish the Great Work, such as transpersonal psychotherapy, hypnosis, and isolation tanks. In the end, it is up to the individual to find the doorway to her own inner self.
Thelema utterly rejects the notion of original sin, and states, rather, that we are all divine creatures—“Every man and every woman is a star” (AL I:5). As such, Thelema rejects the idea that emotional states like guilt, shame, and pity are virtues, and instead recognizes positive virtues, such as honor, pride, and courage. Thelema also does not recognize any personified source of "evil", such as the Judeo-Christian Satan (although a personification named Choronzon is used to represent malicious confusion, egotism, and illusion). Rather, Thelemites are encouraged to discover their own divinity, as well as their personal sense of right and wrong, based on both rational thinking and through apprehension of their True Will.
Lust from AC's Thoth Tarot. While Nuit and Hadit represent the ideals of mystic Love, Babalon—the Scarlet Woman who rides the Beast and carries aloft her Holy Graal—is the ideal of sexual ecstasy.
Love & Sacred Sexuality
Thelema—which is Greek for Will—is paired with Agape, the Greek word for Love. Love, from a mystical point of view, is the drive to achieve Union, thereby losing the sense of ego-individuality and isolation. This theme is repeated extensively within Thelema, and is considered to be the key to accomplishing the Great Work. This is reflected in the core expression of Thelema from The Book of the Law:
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. (AL I:40) Love is the law, love under will. (AL I:57)
This notion of divine Love is personified in the Thelemic deities Nuit and Hadit, who represent (respectively) the infinitely-expanded Goddess of the Night Sky and the infinitely-condensed masculine Point, the hidden Flame in the being of all that lives. Their Union results in the birth of Ra-Hoor-Khuit (or Horus), the Hawk-Headed sun god, called the Crowned and Conquering Child.
As such, Thelema recognizes that the fundamental nature of the Universe is creative, which is reflected and embodied in the act of sex. As such, consensual lovemaking is considered to be a sacrament, and can even be used for personal devotional or transformational rites. By extension, the absolute freedom for all consenting adults to engage in sex as they Will is an important cultural element within Thelema.
Crowley divided history into Aeons, which are large blocks of time (about 2000 years) that embody specific spiritual concepts. The first was the Aeon of Isis, with a focus on the Maternal Goddess and Mother Earth. After that was the Aeon of Osiris, representative of the paternal Dying God, which reflected the notions of self-sacrifice, original sin, and redemption. The current Aeon, which is marked as beginning in 1904, is that of Horus. The Aeon of Horus is that of the Child, the sovereign individual, who seeks his own unique identity and path of self-actualization, free from shame and fulfilled in Light and Joy. Although the great majority of Thelemites consider the Aleisterian Aeonic system to be symbolic rather than historical, it is common to refer to the "modern age" as the New Aeon.
Adjustment from AC's Thoth Tarot.
Crowley is quoted as saying, "Equilibrium is the basis of the Work". Achieving balance is a key element within Thelema, in terms of both the worldly and the spiritual. This includes balancing pride with humility, light with dark, matter with spirit, knowledge with wisdom, logic with emotion, and even free will with destiny. It is through the reconciliation of apparent opposites that Attainment is possible. Perhaps the finest summary of Thelemic equilibrium is the maxim, "Act passionately; think rationally; be Thyself."
Thoughtfulness and the rejection of blind faith
Thelema inspires free thinking, skepticism, and the scientific-method over blind faith, which Crowley defined as "acceptance of any statement as true without criticism, examination, verification, or any other method of test." Thelemites very rarely believe something "just because."
This is why Thelema is often thought of as a Gnostic religion. Gnosis is Greek for "knowledge," and as as such, Thelemites are expected to accept beliefs only through the process of direct experience and substantiation. A Thelemite does not want to have faith in God—she wants to know God (and eventually come to realize that she IS God).
Independence and Liberty
Aleister Crowley as a young Dandy. His bisexuality inspired him to champion sexual liberty.
Although most Thelemites recognize that humans are intrinsically interdependent, Thelema requires that one aspire to self-reliance and a sense of personal responsibility for one's own actions and well-being. Also, Thelemites tend to be suspicious of authority, often choosing their own unique paths. As such, deeply embedded within Thelema is the value of Liberty—to make one's own choices about major life issues, such as career, sexual partners, and creative expression. Very importantly, Thelemites strive to avoid interfering in anyone else's process of discovering and expressing their own Will, recognizing that this only leads to confusion and disharmony.
Thelemites promulgate the Law, but do not convert
Practices such as proselytizing and conversion are strongly discouraged within Thelema, since Thelemites hold that interpretation of The Book of the Law is a task strictly for the individual. At the same time, many undertake the duty of promulgating the general principles of Liber Legis (as outlined above), thereby spreading the Law of Liberty. The object is to inspire others to acknowledge their own unique Will and then to attempt to discover and express it.
This essay has been but the most basic introduction to Thelema, which is rich with history, ideas, and aims for humanity. For my own unique take on Thelema, see The Book of Ash. If you would like to know more about the detailed elements of Thelema, including information on Aleister Crowley, Thelemic antecedents, the Qabalah, Thelemic organizations, beliefs and the Holy Books, Yoga, and Magick, see A Guide to the Study of Thelema.