The Left and Right Hand Path, Oversimplified
In which I explain and oversimplify these concepts.
Epistemic status: I am not initiated into or a practitioner of any religion that uses these concepts, nor am I a scholar of any such religion. The elaboration of these concepts is done from my own independent, sporadic reading and unverified personal gnosis.
The Left and Right-Hand Paths
The concept of the left and right-hand path has its origins in Hinduism and has been imported into the west with a variety of overlapping and diverging meanings. It derives from the left hand – the unclean hand – and is a tradition that diverged from the spiritual monopoly of the Brahmins. It could be practiced by the unclean – prostitutes, butchers, untouchables. It incorporated intentionally transgressive practices – including meat, sex and alcohol. More extreme practices include black magic and human sacrifice.1
In the 20th century, western occultists discovered the concept of the left-hand path. They associated it with individuality, antinomianism, self-initiation, the pursuit of worldly power and enjoyment. Antinomianism can range from the violation of the most harmless and purely ritual taboos all the way to fundamental norms: at one end we have the liberal, post-Christian morality of “modern Satanism” (LaVey and his descendants) posturing as transgressive, at the other end there is the incoherent (but undeniably transgressive) pan-extremism of a group like the Order of Nine Angles.
According to Jung and Campbell, the left-hand path is about creating one’s own life script. It is for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to operate within inherited, ‘normie’ life scripts and must develop their own frameworks. It is fecund, creative, dark, intuitive and feminine. Because there are fewer inherited models and guides for walking this path, it is less risk-adverse: some fail to navigate it successfully and lose their lives, their sanity, or their souls. However, there are times when it is necessary to walk it, when the chaos can no longer be exorcised but must be ridden.
The right-hand path is characterized by external duty, conventional virtue, and a gradual and consistent attempt to refine one’s character. It takes inherited life scripts and attempts to use them to build a meaningful and virtuous life. It is externally focused, risk-adverse, solar and masculine (this does not mean that it is only or primarily pursued by men, but that it is archetypally masculine).
The right-hand path does have its countercultural expressions: typically by those who seek to renew or reinforce traditional values. This is the path of the saint or prophet who renew his wayward people by calling them back to righteousness.
Many of those following the right-hand path do not self identify as such. Exhortations to live lives of duty and virtue do not typically frame themselves in the rhetoric of 20th century occultists. Perhaps the most obvious exponent of the right-hand path today would be Jordan Peterson, who exhorts his young fan base to take up external responsibilities for a meaningful life.
Here is a stereotypical and successful right-hand path vocation: a young Mormon who, after going on mission, gets married, starts a family, goes to medical school, and subsequently volunteers as a doctor treating tropical diseases in a remote and underdeveloped corner of the world. He dies having helped thousands of people, survived by several children and a dozen grandchildren.
A stereotypical left-hand path vocation: a young queer schizophrenic artist lives a nomadic life among the world’s great cities. She has a promiscuous life with numerous lovers. At one point she is involved in a radical direct-action cell. She founds numerous bands and authors several books. She spends her elder years in an apartment in Berlin which is a social hub of a number of poets, dissidents and transients. After her death, multiple biopics are written about her influence on several avant-garde cultural movements. Despite being statistically predisposed at an early age to failure and early death, she manages to surf the chaos of her own being and make a number of creative contributions to the world that inspire generations who come after her.
Applying a stereotype is always misleading and the above are by now well-worn clichés. People who have lived lives like this still inspire young imitators engaging in cargo-cult self actualization, who will hopefully go on to adapt and modify these scripts in ways that lead to generative and creative lives rather than ossified imitation.
Trying to live out a particular archetype is alluring but profoundly destabilizing. We may have dispositions that make the right-hand or left-hand path more appropriate for us, but walking one of these paths is a matter of degree not absolutes. Someone who is drawn to either the left or right-hand path has aspects of the other within them yearning for expression.
If you are walking the right-hand path, you probably find yourself sometimes craving novelty, innovation, and darkness. If you are walking the left-hand path, there are aspects of your life that cry out for discipline and order. Failure to address these can result in crisis, where one is forced to make a drastic course correction in the direction of a more ordered, conventional life or a more chaotic and creative one.
Recognizing that no one ever fully follows one path or the other is important for avoiding absurd and unstable extremes. Prioritizing transgression for its own sake produces incoherence – because no moral system is ever wrong about everything. The fascination with and worship of totalitarians, mass shooters and serial killers found in some darker corners of the internet (and the occasional lost soul who musters the hideous strength to emulate them) is an example of this extreme.
On the other hand, no moral system is right about everything either – and a willingness to subordinate your own integrity to a larger social abstraction also produces monsters, such as the militant willing to brutalize and sacrifice others to an abstract, transcendent good, or complicity in great societal evils.
Some right-hand path exercises:
avoid telling lies of any kind – convert to a religion - kick a bad habit you’ve been meaning to, either permanently or temporarily – attend a service or liturgy – donate a sum of money or portion of your income to a worthy charity – fast – dedicate a portion of the day to prayer or meditation – go on a spiritual retreat - read scripture – volunteer at a community organization – go vegetarian, permanently or temporarily – refrain from killing (including insects and spiders) – refrain from cursing or harsh speech - abstain from sexual expression for a time (no sex or masturbation) – rescue an abandoned and suffering animal - commit to a monogamous relationship – dress neatly and modestly – become an organ or tissue donor – attend a public forum to advocate for some wise policy or just cause – pray for your enemies – take a martial art - create devotional and uplifting art
Here are some left-hand path exercises.Note that some of these are illegal, dangerous, and at least potentially morally fraught. They are provided for entertainment purposes only.
steal something – act to realize a sexual fantasy – use intoxicants – enact vengeance on some wicked person who has escaped the judgment of the law – trespass on private property – take a direct action against some deserving target or in service of a cause you believe in – craft an elaborate (and false) persona and backstory for yourself and convince someone of it – hunt, kill and consume an animal –violate some sacred boundary of the religion you were raised in (such as desecrating an icon or sacred text) – allow yourself to use words which you cannot use in polite company (in the past, swear words or religious oaths, but realistically today, slurs) – go naked – camp in an abandoned, foreboding, desolate or haunted place – practice necromancy or divination – curse or hex someone or something – get in a fight - create dark and disturbing art
Note that exercises are never a substitute for a spiritual direction or a student teacher relationship in a living lineage.
Contradiction and Mosaic
Providing a list of the above does not suggest that you do any or even all of them. There are things on both these lists that speak to me and also things which do not. But the idea is that you can mix and combine these paths to create a mosaic. Such a mosaic is likely to skew more one way than another – but a balanced one includes aspects of both. If you can resist the desire to embody a particular archetype, you can see the value in making certain aspects of your life into uplifting cathedrals of order and leaving others as dark forests – tangled and pregnant with mystery.
Black magic is not considered an extreme practice in WEIRD countries today because officially no one believes it works; but in pre-modern societies it is considered one of the most malevolent and dangerous things you can do.