Although I usually stick to reading personal finance or economics books, I'm always up for reading something new, so I gladly accepted the challenge when one of my friends invited me to read "The Kybalion." The Kybalion is a book about Hermetic philosophy and was written in 1908 under the pseudonym of "The Three Initiates". The book is a fairly short read, and although it can sometimes come off as bit "overly mystical", I felt that it still contained valuable principles that can be applied towards mastering our personal lives.
The book begins by briefly summarizing "The Seven Hermetic Principles" which form the backbone of the Hermetic philosophy. Although each principle is meaningful on its own, the principles are intended to be understood and applied as a cohesive whole to gain maximum benefit from the philosophy. I'm certainly not an expert on Hermeticism, but I'd like to share my interpretation of the seven principles and the key principles that I plan on taking away from the book and applying to my day to day life.
1. The Principle of Mentalism.
The first principle of Hermeticism is that "The all is mind; the universe is mental." Out of the whole book, this principle took the most time to grasp. I read the summary of mentalism, and the more detailed chapter several times just trying to grasp the principle. As I understand it, Hermeticism views the "All" as everything that exists. Now, when I say everything that exists, I mean everything. For example, 200 years ago, we didn't know about radio waves or gamma radiation, but it was still there and still affecting us. The same principle holds today. Even with our advanced science, there are many things that I'm sure we don't know about. The "All" encompasses everything, both known and unknown.
However, The Kybalion posits that this "All" is not merely matter and energy. Rather, the All is mind. Things such as matter, energy, light, etc, are manifestations of this underlying All, but the All itself is mental. The proposition that the All is mental and that the universe is mind is key to the subsequent propositions because it allows the Hermeticist to interact with the universe on a mental level.
Maybe I just don't get it, but I struggle to accept this proposition of the universe as a mind that creates physical reality. The principle of a "mental universe" seems to clash with the objectivist notion that existence precedes consciousness. According to the Objectivist perspective, "Because to be conscious is to perceive something, consciousness requires something outside of itself in order to function; consciousness requires and is dependent upon, existence." For example, we are conscious because we have brains that can process information. Those brains are composed of various cells and molecules. The Hermetic principle that physical reality is created AFTER a mental reality seems akin to claiming that it would be possible to be conscious without the physical matter that composes our brains.
That being said, I do believe that there is some truth to the principle of a mental universe. If we think about it, the universe exists in an ordered, predictable way. The fact that a water molecule is represented as a piece of ice instead of steam is due to a set of abstract "mental" laws that govern the behavior of the physical universe. If we consider the set of abstract laws that determine the behavior of physical matter to be a "mind" then the proposition of a mental universe makes more sense.
2. The Principle of Correspondence.
The principle of Correspondence is embodied by the saying "as above, so below; as below, so above."
According to the Kybalion, there are three planes of existence: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual. The most basic interpretation of the principle of correspondence is that there is a universal application between the laws on all planes and that we can use knowledge of one plane to infer the laws of another plane. As I was reading this section of the book, I immediately thought of Adam' Smiths quote that, "What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom” (Wealth of Nations).
Smith's idea was that what is prudent and sensible for a family is also prudent for a kingdom. For example, it's not good for a family to be in excessive debt. Similarly, it is wise for families to trade for products and services that they cant easily produce for themselves. In a sense, Smith was using the principle of correspondence to show that what is a basic truth for a small family remained true when applied to the nation as a whole.
To be fair, The Kybalion does get a bit complicated in the principle of correspondence and describes Seven Minor planes for each of the 3 planes of existence, and even these minor planes have their own sub planes. It is easy to get a bit lost in all of the planes and sub planes and question the rational and validity of this multitude of planes. That aside, I do believe that the principle of correspondence is readily apparent in our lives. Applying the principle of correspondence allows us to use the facts and information we know to make inferences about the unknown and can be a very powerful tool.
3. The Principle of Vibration.
The principle of vibration is that "Nothing rests everything moves; everything vibrates". Even from a scientific perspective, this principle is indisputable. Even things that appear stationary are in fact vibrating. We know that atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Even in something as solid and apparently stationary as a piece of steel, the atoms that compose that piece of steel are still moving and vibrating.
However, this principle of vibration is intended to be more than an interesting physics lesson. According to The Kybalion, different mental states are influenced by different vibration levels; thus, by being able to alter vibration levels, the student can not only change their own mental state but that of those around them. On the surface, this might appear "kooky" to some - controlling people with vibrations? However, we have to remember that everything in the universe is vibrating. Music has the profound ability to alter moods based on its tone, and isn't the very definition of a tone the rate of vibration? On a physical level, water changes to ice based on the level of vibration of its molecules. Slowing the vibration level slows down the movement of the molecules, decreases the temperature, and causes ice to form. So, although this principle is presented in a somewhat mystic way, I think the underlying logic makes sense.
4. The Principle of Polarity.
Polarity is explained as "Everything is Dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet" all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled."
Of all the principles in The Kybalion, Polarity is the most self-evident and readily observable. For example, hot and cold are points along a continuum called temperature. Light and dark are likewise determined by varying degrees of light. Where does cold end, and where does heat begin? There isn't a clear answer to this question, so the Kybalion explains this by suggesting that everything can be represented as proximity to its respective pole.
As it applies to our personal life, the principle of polarity shows that many actions and behaviors can be represented by pairs of opposites. By focusing our mental energy on the desired pole, we can move towards the desired state. For example, someone who is "lazy" is not doomed to be lazy for the rest of their life. There is not a classification of "lazy" rather, lazy and hardworking are opposites poles of the same continuum. By taking steps to move towards the "hardworking" continuum, the student will gradually move away from the less desired lazy state and towards the desired hardworking state. This principle is important because it demonstrates the importance of even small changes in helping us reach our goals.
5. The Principle of Rhythm.
"Everything flows, out and in; everything has its tides; all things rise and fall; the pendulum-swing manifests in everything; the measure of the swing to the right is the measure of the swing to the left; rhythm compensates."
In a sense, the principles of vibration and rhythm are related. On a micro level, everything is vibrating -molecules, radio waves, ultraviolet light from the sun, etc. Rhythm shows that motion and change apply to more than just the physical world. Kingdoms rise and fall. Relationships blossom and then go sour. The economy booms and then it crashes. For every high, there is a low.
Interestingly, The Kybalion points out that the degree to which the pendulum swings to the right or left are related. Extreme lows are met with extreme highs, while moderate lows entail moderate highs - this is known as the principle of compensation. I can't definitively prove this, but we can see examples compensation in real life. Consider that tropical locations along the equator still experience cool and warm seasons, but the variance between a high temperature in summer and a low temperature in winter is much less than a place in a higher latitude. Manic depression (now called bipolar disorder) was named because it caused extreme periods of elation followed by periods of terrible depression. People living with condition experienced a "higher high" than people without the condition, but they also experienced a "lower low."
Although pendulum swings are inevitable, the Kybalion suggests that we can move the pendulum so that instead of swinging between "happy and sad", we can swing between happy and thrilled. Remember that in the Kybalion there are three broad planes of existence: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual. Higher planes such as the mental and spiritual planes have primacy over the lower mental plane. Therefore, one can create a better physical state my creating a better mental state. For a real-life example of this, consider the well-documented placebo effect. In many cases, patients are given a sugar pill that they are told is a wonder drug that can cure their illnesses. Even though the pill itself is inert, the patients demonstrate physical improvements as a result of their altered mental state.
6. The Principle of Cause and Effect.
"Every Cause has its Effect; every Effect has its Cause; everything happens according to Law; Chance is but a name for Law not recognized; there are many planes of causation, but nothing escapes the Law."
My biggest take away from the law of cause and effect is that every action can be explained - even if we don't know the exact causes. The book gives the example of throwing a die. To the casual observer, the fall of the die appears "random" and caused by chance. However, if we were to throw the die with the exact same speed at the exact same angle on the exact same surface, each time we would get the same result. The fact that throwing a die is called a "chance outcome" simply illustrates the fact that we don't know all the possible variables and how they will affect the outcome- it doesn't negate the fact that the outcome is directly attributable to that said set of variables.
As we live our lives, the principle of cause and effect highlights the importance of personal responsibility. Getting a promotion at work, landing a new job, or meeting a new romantic partner may be seen as chance events by the casual observer, but they are all traceable back to past actions. Past actions for the promotion could include job performance, documented volunteer hours, and even how well your boss likes you. Just because we don't know all of the factors that lead to a certain outcome doesn't mean that that outcome is caused by chance.
7. The Principle of Gender
"Gender is in everything; everything has its Masculine and Feminine Principles; Gender manifests on all planes."
Finally, the principle of gender posits that everything has both masculine and feminine principles. According to The Kybalion, the masculine principle is oriented more towards projecting energy and initiating movement while the feminine is oriented towards receiving energy. Both masculine and feminine are important. Feminine helps us receive energy, thoughts, ideas, and concepts, while the masculine is essential for putting for turning our ideas into action and exerting influence in the world.
As I read The Kybalion, I noticed a recurring theme - we have tremendous power over our lot in life. The principle of mentalism tells us that there is a set of underlying rules and principles that govern the universe. By mastering and learning these rules, we can better control our destiny. The principle of polarity illustrates how favorable and unfavorable outcomes are not discrete events, but rather two opposite ends of the same spectrum. Even small steps taken in the right direction move us closer to our goals.
The principle of rhythym demonstrates that life is always changing and helps us accept that we will face both good times and bad times. Setbacks aren't necessarily punishment, but rather precede an exciting new chapter of our lives. Cause and effect tells us that every action that happens to us is due to past actions. It doesn't mean that we will always know what those past actions were, but it does mean that we live in a world where our past actions do matter.
The Kybalion is a book that I could read 100 times and still not completely understand all of the concepts. The good thing is that we don't always have to understand something completely for it to be useful. I have no idea how my car's computer makes the cylinders fire, but I still enjoy driving instead of walking. The same is true of the Kybalion. I don't understand all of it, but I think it shows a powerful message that mastering our emotions, mastering our mind, and seeking to gain wisdom are the keys to improving ourselves.