Printed in the Spring 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Lile, Minor, "Magical Realms of the Imagination" Quest 106:2, pg 13-16
By Minor Lile
Over the years since I joined the Theosophical Society in the late 1980s, I have been fortunate to be in the presence of teachers who have enabled me to deepen my understanding and relationship with the subtle or inner realms. These might be defined as the region where beings dwell who are not visible to the physical eye.
For the last decade or so, this aspect of my spiritual practice has involved studying these realms under the tutelage of R.J. Stewart. R.J.’s teachings are rooted in what he terms the sacromagical traditions of Britain, which is composed of various elements, including the Arthurian and Arimathean Grail legends (having to do with Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to legend, migrated to Britain with the Grail after the resurrection of Christ); Celtic and classical mythology; and the Western Kabbalah, as well as traditional folktales, stories, and music of the British people.
R.J. is a prolific author, with more than forty titles in publication. He conducts workshops and classes, both in person and online, with student groups in the U.S., England, and Israel (see www.rjstewart.net for more information). In his writings and workshops he incorporates an extensive array of sources, including the classical Greek philosophers ranging from Empedocles to Plato, more modern writers and scholars such as Rudyard Kipling, Dame Frances Yates, Aryeh Kaplan, and William Sharp (writing as Fiona Macleod), as well as stories from his own experience and that of his teachers and mentors, particularly the twentieth-century British occultists W.G. Gray and Ronald Heaver.
Both in his writings and workshops, R.J.’s work centers on engaging and reawakening the imagination. He characterizes magic as an artistic science that develops the imagination in ways that can expand one’s individual consciousness and also engender change in the outer world. As I have experienced it, this is not a magic of casting spells and the haphazard raising of potentially uncontrollable elemental forces. It is a practice of utilizing the imagination to engage and collaborate with the myriad beings of the subtle realms.
The Theosophical Society has a somewhat vexed relationship with magic and magical traditions. The writings of H.P. Blavatsky are representative of the difficulties. On the one hand, she wrote numerous articles extolling the accomplishments of Hermetic philosophers and mages throughout history and describing their work as scientific applications of the hidden laws of nature. At the same time, her writings include numerous warnings against the dangers of being seduced by the allure of ceremonial magic and coming under the sway of those whose work in the occult realms is rooted in self-advantage and ego.
The early history of the TS also reveals a fascination with magical acts, particularly acts of conjuring. Henry Steel Olcott’s memoir Old Diary Leaves is filled with such stories. The rituals and practices of the Liberal Catholic Church and the orders of Co-Freemasonry, both closely associated with TS leaders such as Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater, and George Arundale, can be construed as forms of a magical practice.
More generally, the Theosophical tradition assumes that there is an esoteric and occulted aspect to life that merits exploration. This is essentially what the Third Object of the Theosophical Society—“to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity”—is about. Yet there is no denying the dangers and risks inherent in such explorations.
A key issue seems to be temptation. The glamour of esoterically manipulating nature can lead to sorcery, which is its own distinct form of magical practice. Blavatsky said in fact that sorcery was the cause of the downfall of the ancient civilization of Atlantis. Others have since pointed to the parallels between our times and the end times of Atlantis.
There is also the relationship between magic and science to consider. Blavatsky herself wrote that science devoid of an ethical or moral foundation is a form of black magic. It is an open question whether humanity has the psychological or physical capacity to control the energies unleashed in the nuclear age. In this sense, the stories of the demise of Atlantis seem relevant regardless of whether one regards them as historically valid or mythological.
Many technological marvels of our time can be perceived as a form of magic in the sense that they are based on arcane knowledge that only a select few can comprehend and manipulate. How many of us understand how an instantaneous video conversation with another person halfway around the world actually works? Or how I can send a document through the ethers to my printer on the other side of the room? There are those who do understand, of course, or this technology wouldn’t be available, but for most of us, the mechanisms that make such things possible are arcane and esoteric.
In any event, there is no denying that Western magical developments over the last 150 years owe much to the doors that were opened by members of the Theosophical Society and others who were influenced by its teachings, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in the late nineteenth century.
In my view, there is a distinction to be made between the practices of the sorcerer and those of the magician. The sorcerer’s works are generally aimed at self-aggrandizement or the accumulation of power. The magician, on the other hand, works for the betterment of the world. In an archetypal sense, the magician represents the capacity each of us has to bring things into manifestation through the exercise of will—purpose rooted in compassion—and the aspiration to be of service in the world.
In popular culture, we can perhaps see this distinction by comparing Gandalf and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Both are wizards, but Gandalf can be understood as a magician of the highest order, who is transformed from being cloaked in gray to white because of his commitment to the well-being of Middle Earth. Saruman, on the other hand, has fallen into sorcery and ultimately experiences the downfall represented by the Tower trump in the Tarot.
Perhaps there is also some confusion between notorious practitioners of magic, such as Aleister Crowley, and our own individual potential for safe exploration and accumulation of experience in the subtle realms. While no spiritual activity should be considered entirely risk-free, there are those who offer teachings that can provide a meaningful but relatively secure and protected experience.
These teachings are rooted in guidelines that are simple and logical: stay within your bounds, avoid rough neighborhoods, be aligned with that which is good, and practice appropriate psychic hygiene. Nearly all of R.J.’s books and workshops include some discussion of self-protection rooted in an ethical framework like that espoused by the Theosophical Society. The well-known spiritual philosopher David Spangler is also very good at providing a framework for exploring the subtle realms (www.lorian.org). Another valuable resource is William Bloom’s 1997 book Psychic Protection.
What does such an exploration look like? Maybe it would be informative to share a recent personal experience of working in these realms. It takes place over a nine-month period from mid-January to mid-October 2017, and is illustrative of similar experiences I have had over the years.
Shortly after the start of the new year, I arranged for a divinatory reading with R.J. using his Merlin Tarot, a deck that he created in collaboration with the artist Miranda Gray in the late 1980s. The intention for the reading was to see what the cards had to say about the year ahead. I’ve done something similar for many years, most often with the I Ching, but also from time to time with the Tarot. While I tend to hold the results lightly, I also endeavor to engage and work with the potentialities that present themselves. Often the prognostications do seem to correspond with how life then unfolds.
One card that came up showed a woman with regal bearing and flowing black hair, sitting outdoors on a wooden throne. With her left hand, she holds upright a green shield that is balanced on her lap. At her feet stands a young bear. In the background, somewhat obscured by a wintry treescape, is the entrance to a cave. In the Merlin Tarot, this figure is the Queen of the Beasts (equivalent to the Queen of Pentacles or Coins in a traditional Tarot deck; pictured TK).
There are various ways of working with Tarot imagery. One traditional practice is to imagine oneself stepping into the scene on the card and engaging with what one finds there in a way that brings the scene to life. This is like active imagination as often used in Jungian dream analysis, during which the individual reenters the dreamscape in a meditative waking state and reengages with the dream content.
Along these lines, in early spring, I decided to enter the scene in this card. After a brief meditation to center and orient myself, I imagined my way into the card’s landscape. At the beginning, the Queen was seated pretty much as she is depicted, while at her feet the bear cub was napping. After exchanging some preliminary courtesies, I asked the Queen for permission to enter the cave. She nodded her consent. She then awoke the bear and indicated that she would like it to accompany me into the cave as a guide.
After entering the cave, the bear and I walked for some distance, generally continuing down and around to the right. Eventually we came to a small, dimly lit cavern or room that had been carved out of the living earth in some time long past. On the floor in the middle of the room was a small chest. It was apparent that the chest contained something for me, so I went over and opened it. Inside was a golden key. As I reached inside and took the key, I heard a feminine voice say, “This is the key to your heart.” This information was repeated two or three times, at which point this chapter of the story came quickly to an end. With appreciation for the gift, I made my way out of the cave, and returned to the outer world.
Over the course of the next several months, this experience would occasionally come to mind, and I would wonder where or when more might be revealed, and where I might find the lock into which the key fit.
The answer to these questions eventually arrived in mid-September, at the time of the autumnal equinox, during a program that was led by R.J. and his coteacher Anastacia Nutt. The setting was Indralaya, the Theosophical center on Orcas Island in Washington state, where my wife and I were residents and managers for nearly twenty years. R.J. and Anastacia have led annual workshops here for the last seven years, exploring an array of topics in the magical tradition.
One of R.J.’s great gifts is a capacity to draw material from many sources found throughout the Western esoteric tradition and weave a compelling story that establishes a thematic framework for the imaginal journeys and exercises in the workshop. The theme of this weekend gathering was “The Magical Art of Story.” Its premise was that our stories are meant to be engaged with and lived into rather than being perceived as mere entertainment.
On the first afternoon, participants were asked to find a quiet space somewhere on the grounds of Indralaya and to carry a question with them to the crossroads for exploration. In R.J.’s teachings, the crossroads is a place of peace, where beings from all dimensions and realms can gather to share information and work together.
In the course of studying with R.J., I have made numerous imaginal visits to the crossroads. For me, it often appears as two dirt roads that intersect with each other and form a balanced crossing pattern aligned with the cardinal directions of north, east, south, and west. I usually find myself standing alongside or in the middle of one of the roads a short distance (maybe eight to ten feet) from the intersection. Sometimes the crossroads are in the middle of a forest; other times they appear to be in open country. The setting is generally pastoral or natural. (I have never, to my recollection, experienced the crossroads as a busy city street, though I have heard others tell of encounters at such places.)
This time the crossroads were in open country, and I sensed that I was facing east. A large oak tree was located to the north and east of the intersection. Immediately upon my arrival, three emissaries came forward to greet me. They were humanlike in appearance, though somewhat smaller in stature. Their appearance was familiar to me and has an association with the fairy or nature-spirit realm. They were carrying with them a locked chest that they placed at my feet. Suddenly I remembered the key I had been given and realized that it happened to be in my pocket. So I took it out and opened the chest.
Inside was a wristwatch. The words “a timepiece for you” arose spontaneously in my mind.
This was not at all what I had expected. I resisted the idea that something as ordinary as a wristwatch would be the object that I would find. But that’s what it was, so I stayed with the experience and accepted the gift that had been given.
As I held the watch in my hands and looked at it more closely, I observed that its face was opaque and unreadable, as if there were secrets about the nature of time or of this time that were yet to be revealed. Soon afterwards, I realized that the watch face looked somewhat like the disk or shield that the Queen is holding on her lap.
I then noticed a small fellow gesturing to me from alongside the nearby oak tree. He was familiar to me from my previous journeys as a representation of the oak as a species. This time it was apparent that he wanted me to join him near the tree. After I did, he led me around behind the tree and showed me the “back door” of the oak, and he indicated that I could open it with my key and enter if I chose.
In response, I placed the key in the lock, turned it, and opened the door, which turned inward. Beyond was a short landing, and beyond that was a stairway carved into the trunk of the tree that spiraled down and to the right. The stairway was maybe fifteen steps in length and led to a small, warm, well-lit room that had contained a sitting area with a single comfortable chair, a side table, and a table lamp. A bookshelf that held a few books and some other items was carved into the opposite wall. Behind the chair were some drawers that were carved into the trunk, a countertop of sorts, and another couple of shelves. Beyond the chair and table, against the far wall, was a large grandfather clock. Its ticktocking filled the small space with sound.
As I stood in the room and looked around, I could feel the timepiece on my right wrist. There seemed to be a certain resonance between it and the grandfather clock. There was also an awareness that in some way this was my room, a place that I could return to, utilize, and benefit from at any time.
Shortly after this, the time at the crossroads seemed to come to a natural conclusion, and I opened my eyes and returned to the outer world of Indralaya. It could well have been a form of cognitive dissonance, but it was astonishing to me how many conversational references there were to time during the rest of the day.
The following day, R.J. led another visualization exercise, during which we visited the island home of Morgan le Fay, the healer goddess of ancient Celtic tradition. In setting the scene, R.J. described the qualities that the earliest tales told of this powerful goddess. In those stories, she is both formidable and admirable. He also told of how in medieval times her reputation had been deliberately sullied by Christian interpretations of Arthurian legend that were intended to undermine older religions and practices.
In the visualization, we were led to Morgan le Fay’s place of healing, which was located at the base of a great oak tree. Once there, each of us was invited, if we chose to do so, to approach the Goddess and receive a gift of healing. When my turn came, I stood in her presence, and she reached out and placed her hands over my heart. As she did so, a feeling of well-being arose within me, accompanied by a sensation of release, as if some long-forgotten or neglected issue that had been troubling my heart had been mended.
We were then bidden to offer her a gift in return. Suddenly the golden key was again in my hands, and after a moment’s reflection, I offered it to her as my gift. Although my initial reaction was to feel a sense of regret, in the same instant I also recognized that it was the only true gift that could be given at this moment. It had fully served its purpose and could now be returned to the mysterious place from which it had come. With that realization, I held the key out to her, and she nodded her acceptance. I nodded in return and stepped back from her presence. Shortly thereafter, we returned once again from the visualization experience to the outer world.
Over the next several weeks, I returned to the room beneath the oak tree several times in my meditations and gradually became more familiar with its feel and contents. At times I could also feel the subtle presence of the timepiece on my right wrist. When I considered it in my imagination, its face continued to be opaque, but there was a sense that at an appropriate time more would be revealed.
Eventually that moment arrived. Again the revelation was surprising. It came during a morning discussion at the Krotona School of Theosophy in Ojai, California. The speaker had made a reference to the oracular injunction “Know thyself.” Coincidentally, this theme had also become prominent in a very spontaneous way during a workshop I had led at the school a week earlier. Suddenly I felt the weight of the watch on my wrist and looked at it in my mind’s eye. On the watch face was imprinted the word “NOW.” Suddenly the weeks of reflection on the quality and nature of time seemed to culminate with this reminder that past, present, and future all come together now, in this very moment, and that now is the only moment in which any of us have the opportunity to know ourselves.
In sharing this experience, I have tried to share an example of what one might encounter in awakening the imaginative faculty within oneself and exploring the inner realms. I have found that there is often an affirming quality to these experiences that can be of great benefit in discerning whether or not one is on the right path. If you wish to begin your own explorations, I very much recommend finding a respected and trustworthy guide or mentor to work with, either in person or through some form of correspondence. This will not only help to safeguard your experience, but can also provide appropriate orientation to whatever you encounter along the way.
In addition to having served as executive director and resident manager at Camp Indralaya for nearly twenty years, Minor Lile is a national lecturer for the Theosophical Society in America and serves on the national board of directors. His interests include long-distance walking and looking for the often hidden presence of the wisdom tradition in contemporary culture.