The Illusion of the Abyss

by Benjamin Rowe, copyright 1997

This piece was written for an English occult magazine. I forget the title I originally put on it -- something cleverly pompous.


The word "abyss" has seen widespread use in the occult community, with many different meanings. In various times and places it has been used to represent everything from the Christian Hell to existential angst. In this century, among the many occultists influenced by Aleister Crowley, the term has taken on a specific reference to the process of transcendence, the events by which a person's awareness transforms from an individualized state into a transcendental or "enlightened" state. Crowley called this process "Crossing the Abyss".

Crowley's description of the process is highly dramatic and equally idiosyncratic. It is also extremely vague, consisting of a few symbols and metaphors that he used throughout his life, without ever attempting to expand or explain them, or to explain in detail the relationship between the transcendental and human levels of being. Perhaps this vagueness is the reason for it popularity; it provides a simple, easily-grasped image, however mistaken it might be.

Crowley perceived the "Abyss" as a literal gap in the stuff of creation, separating the human levels of existence from the transcendental or divine levels. He describes this gap as a region of nullity and terror, in which anything that enters is torn asunder. (In this much, he was following a long-established theme in Hebrew cabalistic lore.) In order to attain to enlightenment, the magician must "leap" into this Abyss, where his human self is ripped apart and destroyed. If he has established enough momentum in his climb towards the divine levels, then the divine spark in himself (freed from its bindings to his human self) will be carried over to the other side of the gap to become a Master of the Temple, the magickal grade equivalent to the basic enlightened state.

Somewhere along the way from one side to the other, Crowley says, the magician must also confront and temporarily become the "Demon of the Abyss", whose nature is Dispersion. Crowley named this demon Choronzon, a name for Satan from the works of Dr. John Dee; but the characteristics he assigns to the demon owe more to the "Dweller on the Threshold" from Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni novels. It is unclear how this confrontation relates to the destruction of the magician's human self.

Crowley's description of his own "crossing of the Abyss" is recorded in his book The Vision and the Voice. The record conforms closely to his metaphor of the process. However, his depiction disagrees in many ways with those provided by other enlightened people across the years; it also disagrees with my own experience of that process, which was achieved through the same means Crowley used: John Dee's "Enochian" magickal system, coupled with the system of lore from the Western traditions of ceremonial magick and the cabala.

From the perspective of my own experience, the whole "Abyss" concept is nonsense. There is no gap between the divine and human levels of existence; the transcendent being is already constantly present and active in every person. Since this is the case, there is nothing to "cross" or "jump". The discontinuity, to the extent there is one, is entirely a matter of perspective; the transcendent view is dramatically different from the Self-centered view common to the lower levels. But there is a constant connection and interaction between the divine and the human; they make up a single, undivided system.

Rather than a separation, our normal lack of awareness of the divine aspect of ourselves is a matter of ignorance. Through ignorance, reinforced by a lifetime of conditioning and habit -- and reinforced even more by magickal disciplines -- the transcendent being in a person is deluded into believing it is something that it is not: an individualized "self" or "soul", operating in the mundane world through the medium of a personality mask. In its ignorance, it becomes so thoroughly identified with this self (which is a constructed thing) that it becomes unaware that it is anything other than that self. You might think of it as a weird sort of dharana or deep meditation; a concentration on an object of meditation (the self, in this case) so intent that the difference between the perceiver and the perceived disappears.

Achieving transcendence therefore is not a matter of creating a bridge over a gap, or of leaping a gap, or anything of that sort. Rather, it is a matter of awakening the already-present transcendent being from its state of identification with the self, getting it to realize and act from its natural state.

What it takes to do this can vary widely. It might require something a catastrophic as the complete destruction of the "self", as in the typical Abyss myth; but it could equally be as subtle and gentle as a breath of air slipping out through an open window, leaving the self completely intact. In my own case, it was somewhere between these extremes. There were some long and rather painful steps leading up to it, but the final event was quick, undramatic, and utterly simple.

To put the event in context, there are two main thrusts to the magickal/cabalistic approach to initiation. First, through invocations, astral explorations, meditation, etc., it seeks to open up the hidden portions of the mind (both sub- and superconscious), to bring their activity under conscious direction, and to make use of them to explore and perceive the corresponding aspects of the universe at large. The scope and control exercised by the individual is constantly increased, and the various parts brought into a state of tight coordination.

At the same time, the cabalistic side of the work seeks to bring about an ever-increasing synthesis in the _contents_ of the mind. Through the use of correspondences, the chaos of raw experience is gradually reduced. Ideas and experiences get organized into hierarchies, each level abstracting something from the lower ones, so that ever-greater numbers of events become instances of ever-simpler ideas. Eventually things coordinate into an elegant system of archetypes, energies, and relationships.

By the time the person has achieved and absorbed the highest purely human level and become an "Exempt Adept", both these processes have pretty much been exhausted. Those parts of the person's being that are capable of being controlled and coordinated by the individual self are as integrated as they are ever going to be. The contents of the mind have been reduced to an integrated scheme and an encompassing philosophy. He is the Compleat Individual, so to speak. Such people -- as Crowley notes -- tend to become leaders of "schools of thought" for spreading their philosophy; or they become priests or social leaders of some sort.

Crowley talks about the next stage of the process as if it were something to be consciously decided; but in fact, if it happens out of anything except necessity, the person is probably jumping the gun. (I should note that the description that follows is from my own experience, coordinated with a very few other people's; your mileage may vary. And this applies only to the magickal/cabalistic approach; it doesn't seem to occur -- at least not with the same severity -- in the more mystical approaches of the Eastern systems.)

The Exempt Adept now enters into a period of increasing "dryness", what I call "wandering in the wasteland", following the myth of the Grail Knights . I don't know how this associates with the so-called "dark night of the soul" -- descriptions of that never resonate for me. He has reached a point of diminishing returns in both his magickal and cabalistic endeavors.

His magickal work still raises his consciousness above its normal level; but instead of staying at that higher level, he always seems to fall back to the point where he started, or advances only the most minute increment -- far too little for the amount of effort expended. And such advances as he makes eventually turn out to be only variations on what he has already accomplished, not something truly new. There seems to be some sort of asymptotic principle in effect. Each increment he moves above his current level requires substantially larger amounts of effort; he can expend all the energy at his command without getting to a stable higher level.

A similar state exists with respect to his cabalistic work. He continues to make elaborations on his synthetic scheme, but finds that new additions and expansions decrease in frequency. At the same time he becomes aware that there are aspects of existence that cannot be fit into his present scheme without destroying it utterly and starting over from scratch; he doesn't know what these aspects are, exactly, but he can sense them looming over the horizon.

And his finely coordinated Self seems to be spinning its wheels in most of its endeavors. He can still act out the functions of the Exempt Adept, but gets less pleasure and fulfillment out of doing so. He can't get a grip on things, on a way to use this great Self of his; he feels like he is trying to act in a frictionless environment.

The reason for all this is that the Adept is looking for something that isn't there -- that is, a continuation of the path as he has experienced it so far, with its blinding revelations, ecstatic highs, encompassing archetypes, etc. There just isn't any more of that, above his current level; such things are characteristic of the human-accessible magickal realms, not the transcendent realms. But he doesn't know that.

Needless to say, the Adept in this situation is a pretty miserable character. Not all the time; usually he can go about his business in the character of the Adept without any difficulty. But periodically the futility of it all hits, and the despair and desperation can reach incredible levels of intensity. What he wants, more than anything, is to get OUT, without seeing any way of doing so. Like the mythical Christ on his cross, he calls out to his god, and gets no answer. All he can do is suffer alone.

But even despair has its limits; when nothing one does can have any effect on the situation, one eventually just gives it up. He gets beyond hope of anything happening, beyond despair that nothing is happening, and just lives life as it comes, without any particular plans or expectations, without any desire beyond the moment. He goes on because that is what he does, and for no purpose. This whole process can go on for a long time. In my own case, the period of increasing despair lasted over five years, the period of "just living" lasted another five.

The actual awakening of transcendent being seems an anticlimax after the wasteland period. Even now, four years after the fact, I am uncertain exactly what triggered the moment when it awoke. All I recall is that some chance remark by a person in an online discussion group caused me to make an assessment, and the being noted that it was no longer identical with the self, but was aware without dependence upon the facilities of the individualized "soul". It was now the no-thing-ness of Binah, instead of identifying with the differentiated activities of the lower spheres. It could put the self on, like a set of clothes, and off again at will.

What happened then is another story. But a few things to note:

-- Despite being very unpleasant, there was no destruction of the individualized self involved; the transcendent being simply "stepped out" of it, leaving it more or less intact, for the moment. A rather substantial re-orientation of it took place later, but it was still undamaged.

-- There was no "jumping into the Abyss"; in fact, no Abyss as such.

-- There was no confrontation with the Demon Choronzon, or any other supposed "denizen" of the "Abyss". No apparently external horrors of any sort, not even Chthulhu.

-- No particular invocations were involved in triggering the event. It took place during an hiatus in my Enochian work, and that work was directed to other purposes in any case.