Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
On any Thelemic message board or at any local body event, the very first idea anyone is likely to encounter about Thelema is, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” We talk often about the True Will. And the first thing you’re likely to hear about True Will is that it definitely doesn’t mean just doing whatever you might want to do. We hear that finding our True Will takes discipline, perseverance, and a lot of hard work to actualize. It’s probably different, to some degree, from what you’re already doing. Other Thelemites feel compelled to make it clear to newcomers that actualizing one’s True Will is a great effort and even an ordeal to put into practice, that it involves upending your entire life, giving up cookies, sitting motionless in excruciating pain for hours, memorizing a boatload of Qabalah, and possibly even taking up Crossfit.
Clearly, I don’t think any of this is true.
Oscar Wilde expresses a similar idea in this way:
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”
How is it that we could be tempted to do things that are not in our Will? Is such a contradiction even possible? Framing the idea of True Will as something difficult has a number shortcomings. We can find ourselves back in a conveniently repackaged model of Superego overpowering Id: or, to use other terms, an adopting an orientation where our unrealistic ideals tyrannize over our so-called “lower” desires. Such an internal dynamic can be unhelpful in a number of ways. When one part of ourselves is in conflict with another, we’re throwing away our energy. This is like running the heat and the air conditioning at the same time: all you’re doing is generating a high power bill. We waste energy agonizing over the temptation, when the very thing we’re “tempted” by may just as easily be a part of our True Will that we are refusing to accept. Our Thelemic source texts are very clear about this in the case of sexual freedom, but it helps to consider the idea extending well beyond just that arena.
True Will = Hard Work?
The idea that True Will is hard work seems to be widely accepted among Thelemites, but it could stand to be more carefully examined. Of course hard work is necessary to accomplish most major goals, yet the over-emphasis conveniently glosses over another equally important aspect of True Will. Doing one’s True Will should be the easiest thing on the world, in the sense that it is the most natural course of action you could possibly engage in at any given moment. When someone is energetic and healthy, we’re already inclined to engage in some type of work. Rest and play are also essential components of a well-lived life: for the simple aim of their own enjoyment, and to rejuvenate us for further work.
Some people might make the point that laziness is the more significant problem for the majority of people in Thelemic communities, rather than the type of ambitious workaholism I’m describing. That may be true, but this problem is one that affects people who are driven and energetic, and who have all that to offer the community. In the workplace, as well as in organizations, these individuals are also the ones who tend to be at risk for burnout.
Protestant Work Ethic
Protestant cultural roots heavily color our implicit values in the United States. Salvation through one’s works is a deeply Christian idea, one that many of us were raised with, and this idea has ben potentially co-opted into the Thelemic life philosophy without carefully examining it. It seems likely that this was also a value that Crowley absorbed from his upbringing.
Furthermore, emphasis on hard work as a value in itself is not necessarily value-neutral. It exists in a value-laden religious context as well as in the historical context of modern labor. If you work a job that involves checking email, consider how that email account affects you mentally. The current work environment allows us to be on call for long periods of time, so we never can tune out from a job. Or we get so immersed in stress that physical health becomes compromised. We hear about “work-life balance,” as if work wasn’t simply one part of a person’s life, among many other parts of our lives. When employees buy into this type of American work ethic, it’s easy to see who reaps the benefits.
Americans in particular take few vacations compared to our European neighbors. Those of us who are ambitious or driven sometimes forget how to relax, or how to enjoy ourselves without undue inhibition or preoccupation with our work. Many people become successful in this culture by setting one part of themselves against what’s seen as “lower,” (Ruach against Nephesh) with the result that they are eating up energy in the friction of this process. But oppression, internal or external, rarely accomplishes its goals over the long-term. It tends to create resentment and revolt. And hard work requires periods of rest as a counterbalance, just like strength training requires periods of recovery.
Is it any surprise that this compulsory work ethic, this old-fashioned resentment of our own laziness or gluttony, can obscure the freshness of True Will? Is it any wonder that this idea of salvation through good works might be imported sneakily into our tradition, like a Trojan horse threatening our freedom? Instead, we can go about our projects from a place of “striving for ever more,” rather than from a place of compulsion or forcing ourselves to do something. In this way, we actively build a more positive, loving relationship with our Nephesh, our appetites. We can pamper that aspect of ourselves without spoiling it.
In this way, it is possible to avoid being tyrannized by unrealistic ideals or “lust of result”. One’s energies are conserved for external sources of opposition.
Work especially exists in balance with play, and play is how children learn and grow: so this is especially true, it seems, in the Aeon of the Child. Play is also the matrix of genius, meaning that novel theories emerge from experimentation and “playing with” all sorts of ideas, techniques, methods, and materials. Creative work of all types tends to unfold in a nonlinear progression: artists have dry spells, writers have writer’s block, and mystics experience dry spells. That type of work occurs in bursts, not in slow plodding.
If you feel like you just need to lie in bed for a little longer, it’s possible you’re not getting enough sleep. It may be that your True Will in that moment might actually be to get more rest. I imagine a Thelemite rolling over in bed and mumbling, “It is my Will to sleep in, so that I may be restored thereby, so I might joyously apply myself to the Great Work. In another 20 minutes.”
Love is the law, love under will.