Open Secrets: Hermeticism, Music, and Life Itself
One of the principal streams of esoteric thought in the West comes to us through Hermeticism. Its origins are as hidden as its secret teachings: some believe it to trace to a semi-divine Egytpian sage and contemporary of Moses called Hermes Trismegistus, while others believe Hermeticism to have originated later in Hellenistic Egypt as a blend of Egytpian religious magic and Greek philosophical spirituality, following the conquests of Alexander the Great. However it originated, Hermeticism influenced mystics, scholars, scientists, and artists for at least 2,000 years, including Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, Goethe, Boticelli, and the U.S. Founding Fathers, to name just a few. Hermetic wisdom flickers in the background of much that we consider familiar.
The highest esoteric path leads through knowledge to wisdom, and from there to gnosis: direct insight into your divine nature. Esoteric knowledge was historically meant for a select few, not for the sake of elitism, but rather because of the power and fascination it brings. To handle the power, we must first have a handle on our lower drives and emotions, like resentment, fear, lust, greed, and aggression. Otherwise, we might harm ourselves and others. To handle the fascination, we must keep our eye on the prize of gnosis. We can easily get lost in the labyrinth: the higher-dimensional beings, angels, spirits, spells, etc. Enjoy the sights and delights along the way, but do not forget what you are seeking. One goes through successive stages of initiation on the path. Each stage faces us with new trials, testing our worthiness. When we pass, we are rewarded not with certificates or medals, but with insight, experiential wisdom, and greater wholeness.
The doors to the esoteric are increasingly open to anyone who cares to step through; so let’s go. In 1908 a book called The Kybalion, published anonymously under the intriguing pseudonym the Three Initiates, presented a summation of Hermetic philosophy, intended as a “master key” for anyone embarking on the esoteric path. The Kybalion lays out seven principles– natural laws of a different order (though entirely compatible with) those of science. Knowledge of the Hermetic Principles can lead us into the occult labyrinth, as it opens our vision to things previously unseen, and puts new power in our hands. But by cracking open our narrow vision to reveal the divine mind pulsing through everything– especially ourselves– it can lead us to awakening. The question at the front of our minds whenever we dip into the esoteric should be, “how can this help me wake up and remain awake?”
A brief summary of the seven Hermetic Principles follows. According to the Hermetic Principle of Mentalism, the universe is ultimately a single, conscious whole, which The Kybalion calls The All. The All is neither the phenomena of the universe, nor a personal God, but rather the totality of the universe itself across all levels, as well as the mind behind it. The All projects phenomena as “thoughts”, through a series of different planes: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual. The human mind is but a tiny reflection of the Universal Mind of the All, as a drop of water is to the ocean.
According to the Principle of Correspondence, the laws that apply to one plane apply to all others as well, though their phenomena may appear unrelated. The maxim “as above, so below” sums this up by indicating that what is true for the macrocosm is also true for the microcosm and vice versa. This principle underlies the astrological correspondence between planetary motions and human emotions, for example. We can get a taste of correspondence when we observe patterns occurring in nature at various scales, for instance in the spirals of a nautilus shell, a whirlpool, a hurricane, or a galaxy. These objects exist on various levels of the physical plane, but their archetypal spiral template exists on a higher mental plane. Understanding of correspondence and facility in translating between different planes gives us the ability to “reason intelligently from the Known to the Unknown”– in other words, to make educated guesses about things we cannot see.
The Principle of Vibration states that everything is constantly in motion and that the differences between the various planes and their phenomena are due to the rate of their vibration. Dense matter vibrates at a low rate, while energy, mind, and spirit vibrate at higher rates, respectively, with infinite gradations along the way. The All itself vibrates the fastest. Though it appears as a perfect stillness– the sense of timeless and selfless consciousness one might experience in samadhi– it actually vibrates at an extreme rate. The author of The Kybalion compares this to the way a quickly-moving wheel appears to hold still. Differences in vibration exist whether or not we perceive them. We know, for instance, that human hearing is limited to frequencies between 20 Hz and 20 kHz, but that dogs can hear frequencies up to 45 kHz; similarly, the colors we see when we look at a flower differ from those a bee would see, who can perceive light in the ultraviolet range. We can imagine different time scales as differing frequencies: the differences in the life cycles of an ant, a tree, a human, a marriage, a family, a nation, a species, a continent, a planet, a star, a galaxy, or a universe. And these are only some obvious examples from the physical world.
The related Principles of Polarity and Rhythm tell us that everything always carries its opposite alongside and that all phenomena constantly swing pendulum-like between opposing poles. Consider your moods. One day we feel great: full of energy, blessed with a positive attitude, we feel we can take on the world. The next day, we have trouble getting out of bed, ruminating over something somebody did or said. Even if our moods are not that extreme, they ebb and flow nonetheless. According to the Hemeticists, all things balance out eventually. To gain mastery over the pendulum at our ordinary level, we must apply the Principle of Correspondence to affect it from a higher plane, for we cannot escape this law.
The Principle of Cause and Effect states that nothing in the universe is random and that all things are connected by the web of causation, whether we perceive it or not. The Principle of Gender states that Masculine and Feminine principles work constantly to create all phenomena. As archetypal principles, Masculine and Feminine transcend male and female as we commonly understand them. In fact, men, women, and transgender people all contain an equal proportion of the archetypal Masculine (seed energy) and Feminine (embodied creativity) within themselves, though they express them differently. Gender, itself a rhythmic polarity, works constantly to beget all things.
Understanding these principles, we can apply them to affect changes in ourselves or the world around us. To truly absorb these principles, we must learn to think symbolically, which helps us transcend our habitual literalism. Just because something is symbolic, that does not mean it is not real. Symbols and metaphors can help us grasp realities that our senses and rational minds cannot.
Let us use music to explore the Hermetic Principles. Have you ever wondered what, exactly, music is– this language that everybody understands, whether they can create it or not? We can study the neuroscience and physics of music, we can analyze it with music theory, we can describe it in language– all of which are worth doing– but nothing comes close to actually explaining how and why it affects us and what it “represents” (if anything); nor can anything stand in for the experience of hearing a piece of music. Yet music can absorb us like nothing else except life itself. In fact, music makes a great metaphor for life itself. A piece of music can act as a microcosmic model of the entire universe, with all of its planes of correspondence. What we learn in our examination of music, we can extend by way of correspondence to other dimensions of life. Peering through the musical microscope, we find ourselves gazing through the Hermetic telescope.
Indulge me while I explain some facts about music– for musicians this may be boring, while non-musicians might feel out of their depth. Stay with me.
Sound is vibration. When a sound vibration occurs, a rapid pulse of pressure and release sends waves through the air, much like those we see on water. These air waves strike our eardrums, which send the vibrations to the inner ear where nerves convert them to electro-chemical signals to send to the brain for processing. We measure these air pulses in cycles per second (Hertz), with each cycle consisting of an on/ off impulse. A lower number of cycles per second (i.e. lower frequency) equals a lower pitch, while a higher frequency yields a higher pitch. Pitches at the lowest end of our perception devolve into a series of “clicks” as we begin to hear the individual pulses of pressure and silence behind the vibration.
Try this: Hum a sound, starting high, toward the top of your register, then move lower. As you reach the bottom of your voice, it will sound crackly. These are the “clicks” representing the basic vibratory impulse on your vocal cords. Now clap a beat. Did you do it? If so, you just clapped a basic rhythm, composed of alternating poles of sound and silence. On/ off, sound/ silence, something/ nothing– these all reflect the Principle of Polarity, which leads to that of Rhythm.
Did you notice the correspondence between rhythm and pitch? When a pitch gets low enough to turn into “clicks”, it becomes a rhythm. So we can say that vibration is rhythm. Rhythm is vibration. Even the Hermetic Principles themselves are subject to the reality they describe.
Rhythm and pitch combine to produce melody, a fundamental element of music. Pitch denotes the relative height of each sound, while rhythm denotes their relative lengths. Hum Happy Birthday, without the words. What you hear is a melody, composed of pitch and rhythm. Now, sing it in your head (with the words) and clap your hands to each syllable. If you did it, you just clapped the rhythm of Happy Birthday, minus the pitch.
Harmony, another basic element of music, occurs when two or more pitches sound at once. The ratio of their respective vibrations determines the nature of the harmony they produce. The most basic harmonic interval, the octave, occurs when one pitch sounds together with another vibrating at twice its rate. Imagine a man and woman singing the same pitch. Although the pitch is “the same”, it is also different because the woman’s voice is higher than the man’s. The 2:1 ratio produces the octave, while other ratios produce other intervals, which may harmonize nicely together (consonance) or clash (dissonance). Chords strummed on a guitar to support a singer are an example of harmony. Harmony strongly contributes to the mood or atmosphere of a piece of music– you may have learned the cliché that major chords sound “happy”, while minor chords sound “sad”.
The correspondence between vibration and rhythm applies to harmony as well. Rhythms relate by ratio, just as harmonized pitches do. To experience the rhythmic ratio of 2:1, analogous to the octave, try tapping your hands steadily this way: Together, right, together, right, together, right, etc. If you did that, your right hand was moving at twice the speed of your left. Other ratios produce different rhythms, which if we speed them up to the point where the impulses start to blend, we will hear as other harmonic intervals. (It helps to hear some examples. Check out this blog by Dan Tepfer, where I first encountered the correspondence of pitch and rhythm). In a piece of music, different rhythms of varying complexities interlock with one another, while pitches combine to create melody and harmony. These elements combine to form an intricate and irreducible whole that we hear instantly as music.
Human beings also contain different levels of vibration. We can picture the chakras as an ascending scale of vibration in the body. Similarly we can consider the different parts of the brain– reptilian, limbic, and neocortex– as representing ascending levels of vibration. We all intuitively understand that the part of us that fights, f***s and sh**ts vibrates at a lower rate than the part that understands Shakespeare.
Levels of musical vibration affect us through our own vibratory channels, according to the Principle of Correspondence. Rhythm is a lower vibration of pitch; pitch is a higher vibration of rhythm. Rhythmically-oriented music hits us in the lower chakras, at the navel and below, which correspond to the lower-vibration dimensions of our bodies and emotions: our energy, physicality, and instincts. Pounding drums and heavy beats and deep bass notes make us want to dance or march. More abstract and ethereal, melodic and harmonic music registers at the higher chakras, and may evoke subtle visions and feelings. Most music combines these elements, affecting us in various mixtures at multiple levels simultaneously.
Exploring the Hermetic principles at work in music, we can extrapolate to life itself. Life, like music, is an organic whole, full of layered complexity. If we can observe these principles in the microcosm of Happy Birthday, then we can begin to perceive them everywhere. Using the Principle of Correspondence, we can understand what the ancients meant when they spoke of the “Harmony of the Spheres”, referring to astrological “music” produced by the rotations of the planets and their interactions. When we can hear astrological music, then we perceive anew the constantly shifting and overlapping patterns woven into the fabric of life. We might hear the triumphant “major chord” of Sun-Jupiter conjunction or the doleful “minor-key” mood of a Moon-Saturn conjunction, and recognize these as parts of an organic, ever-evolving whole. This can liberate us from our default state of narrow, materialistic, and self-identified awareness.
Esoteric knowledge will not get you a real estate license or medical degree (at least not directly). It may seem uselessly abstract, but this knowledge does have practical value. Learning to see symbolically and identify hidden correspondences helps us perceive more of reality. It does not violate the laws of science, which pertain to ordinary reality. Science holds up in a Hermetic universe: climate change is real, the Earth is round, we evolved from apes, etc. Science, however, cannot tell us anything about the laws transcending ordinary reality and the mind behind these laws. Esoteric systems like Hermeticism help us break into this higher level of awareness. When we perceive more of reality, we can do more to affect it. This is the root of real magic. But we do not ultimately seek this knowledge in order to control life. Rather, we seek it for the sake of wisdom, which comes with a more accurate understanding of the universe and our place within it, including a better sense of both the extent and limits of our power. When we alchemize our lives, then we truly discover the difference between what we can and cannot change, and even more importantly, we discover who we really are.