How Rational is Divination?

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“Science describes the least of things. The least of what something is. Religion, magic—Bows to the endless.” – Joseph Solomon, A Dark Song.

According to the below TED Talk, divination primarily acts as a method to unlock the unconscious mind by prompting it with symbols and non-linear connections, so that it lends solutions to problems through the language of symbolism.

On the surface of things there is no falsehood in such statements. I would concur that when a divinatory system such as Tarot, Geomancy or Astrology is learned thoroughly the answers one can provide oneself with are based on what has been learned but can be expressed intuitively, like when you can ride a bike or drive a car so well that many of your actions, which you once struggled to learn, come as second nature.

The video therefore provides an accurate depiction of divination at the most rudimentary and basic level. But those of us deeply entrenched in matters of religion, magic and spirituality desire to understand far more that the mere surface of things. That which is ‘occult’ stands for that which is ‘hidden’ and to understand what is hidden one must delve into depths that lie beyond exoteric or materialist understanding.

It is true that divination, like all magical processes, can assist the conscious mind to channel unconscious forces. But the next question a magician would ask in response to such a statement is ‘what is the unconscious?’ To begin to answer this, one might explore the depth psychology of Carl Jung, in which the unconscious is portrayed as a realm of archetypes that transcends the personal space and touches on an objective reality known as the Collective Unconscious, which in mystical parlance can be understood as the realm of the gods.

Despite the fact that such language can be interpreted either mystically or materially according to one’s beliefs, the most fascinating aspect of Jungian psychology (which overlaps with, but cannot be wholly equated with Magic) is found in the concept of synchronicity as ‘an acausal connecting principle’ through which the events of the inner world are acutely mirrored in the outer world in a striking, meaningful and timely way that is beyond everyday coincidence. Unlike other aspects of the notion of the collective unconsciousness (which some proponents assert can be expressed as a purely biological phenomenon) synchronicity is difficult to quantify materially. The best efforts to do such a thing came from some of the extra-curricular work of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who Jung worked with sporadically over the course of multiple decades in order to prove a quantum connection between the interior and exterior worlds. Ultimately though, to the frustration of both, their efforts failed.

With the application of a magical understanding of synchronicity however, the unveiled Self can be understood as a pure reflection of the One described by Hermeticism and Advaitism, as a spark of the Divine in Gnosticism, as God itself in Thelema, as the Kingdom of Heaven that is within you in Christianity, as The Superior Man in Taoism, and so on. What all have in common is the notion that the utmost Self, like the unconscious, can be found within oneself and beyond oneself simultaneously and the realisation of this fact in the form of non-dual awareness enlightens ones views on the fullness of reality in a way that is significantly beyond ‘the least of things.’

“What the superior man seeks, is in himself; what the ordinary man seeks, is in others.” – The Ethics of Confucius.

Then there is the I Ching. This is a form of divination that, having cast used many times, I find difficult to connect to any of the aforementioned ideas that could explain divination as a process that connects the rational mind to the intuitive mind.  Such is the frequency of depth, profundity and synchronicity revealed when consulting this oracle that even with no real understanding of the physical form of the hexagrams whatsoever one can obtain answers to one’s questions that are too solid in their clarity to come from any rational or symbolic prompt impressed upon the intuitive mind.

An excellent summary of the I Ching that I find highly satisfactory comes from Chapter XVIII of Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice, which states:

The Yi King is mathematical and philosophical in form… It is in some ways the most perfect hieroglyph ever constructed. It is austere and sublime, yet withal so adaptable to every possible emergency that its figures may be interpreted to suit all classes of questions. One may resolve the most obscure spiritual difficulties no less than the most mundane dilemmas; and the symbol which opens the gates of the most exalted palaces of initiation is equally effective when employed to advise one in the ordinary business of life. The Master Therion has found the Yi King entirely satisfactory in every respect. The intelligences which direct it show no inclination to evade the question or to mislead the querent. A further advantage is that the actual apparatus is simple. Also the system is easy to manipulate, and five minutes is sufficient to obtain a fairly detailed answer to any but the most obscure questions… There is, on the surface, no difficulty at all in getting replies. In fact, the process is mechanical; success is therefore assured, bar a stroke of apoplexy.

The passage continues with an elucidation of divination as a system through which one can obtain clarity in the same way as that postulated in the above TED video. Yet, as one may expect from a Magus as venerable as Crowley, it also provides an explanation of the difference between the use of divination as a means of understanding the divine aspect of oneself rather and the mundane method of obtaining intuitive solutions to one’s problems in the way the speaker in the TED talk suggested.

But, even suppose we are safe from deceit, how can we know that the question has really been put to another mind, understood rightly, and answered from knowledge? It is obviously possible to check one’s operations by clairvoyance, but this is rather like buying a safe to keep a brick in. Experience is the only teacher. One acquires what one may almost call a new sense. One feels in one’s self whether one is right or not. The diviner must develop this sense. It resembles the exquisite sensibility of touch which is found in the great billiard player whose fingers can estimate infinitesimal degrees of force, or the similar phenomenon in the professional taster of tea or wine who can distinguish fantastically subtle differences of flavour. Divination affords excellent practice for those who aspire to that exalted eminence, for the faintest breath of personal preference will deflect the needle from the pole of truth in the answer. Unless the diviner have banished utterly from his mind the minutest atom of interest in the answer to his question, he is almost certain to influence that answer in favour of his personal inclinations.

The psycho-analyst will recall the fact that dreams are phantasmal representations of the unconscious Will of the sleeper, and that not only are they images of that Will instead of representations of objective truth, but the image itself is confused by a thousand cross-currents set in motion by the various complexes and inhibitions of his character. If therefore one consults the oracle, one must take sure that one is not consciously or unconsciously bringing pressure to bear upon it…

To summarise, the importance of rational self-knowledge is a necessary factor in divination, and in accordance with some of the more materialist explanations, divination is an excellent took of self-analysis. Yet, as one becomes accurately exposed to the deepest parts of oneself, one unlocks and illuminates aspects of one’s true nature. As things stand, there are aspects to the Self and to the mind that go beyond what can be summarised materially, and until such time that our scientific knowledge of these things becomes more advanced, tools such as magic, religion, divination and depth-psychology provide some of the best techniques we have to better understand such things.