text and photo © Jonathan Zap
What is a Sacred Regimen?
A Sacred Regimen is a formal agreement you make with yourself to carry out a sacrifice to enhance your life and serve the greater good. The sacrifice will generally involve giving up habits and indulgences and may also involve committing to practices such as exercise, meditation, etc. The Sacred Regimen involves changing your relationship to energy in some form — the caloric energy of food, money (the socially agreed upon form of stored energy), sex, exercise or other activities (energetic outputs). The Sacred Regimen is an act of will applied to areas where you would otherwise be mechanical — governed by habit, addiction, and conditioned forces. I Ching hexagram 60, which is essentially about discipline, says: “To become strong a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted.” The duty would be your life mission and that which is required of you by your essence and True Will. To fulfill that duty usually involves conscious and difficult sacrifice, and the Sacred Regimen is a way to formalize that sacrifice and use it proactively, thereby creating your own initiatory experience, a catalyst to your development, an aid to metamorphosis. Also, there is a blurred boundary between individual and collective metamorphosis. If we have the ability to positively transform ourselves, then we have a duty to ourselves and others to do so.
To be your own alchemist, to transform what is in your inner cauldron, you need to fight the inevitable tendency to be mechanical — the stagnant power of habit, addiction and conditioning — and use will to set conscious limitations for yourself. Aleister Crowley defines Magick as “The art and science of creating change in conformity with will.” Therefore the self-imposed regimen is a Magickal practice, one of the most powerful and appropriate sorts of Magick — the use of will to create change in yourself. This is also the most profound way to create collective change. As June Singer put it: “The image to be held before one is that every act by every person has an effect on all, changing the delicate balance that keeps the universe in motion. Therefore, it was considered necessary by the alchemists to so conduct their work and their lives, which were really the same thing, as if the salvation of the world depended upon it.”
The Sacred Regimen is a conscious convergence of your life and your work, which is only appropriate since it is impossible for them not to converge (for better or worse). Hexagram 60, which is usually translated with the title “Limitation,” comes from an ideogram that connotes the segments that divide bamboo. The segments of bamboo are not “limitations” as the English word tends to imply in our minds. They are appropriate boundaries, lines of demarcation that are a key to both the bamboo’s aesthetic beauty as well as its structural integrity. We tend to think of “limitation” negatively as in being held back, punished or handicapped. But a life without limits is confusing, troubling, disempowering and unhealthy. Without limits we have no focus, we lose the edge of discipline and our energy gets dissipated. It also says in the commentary on Hexagram 60 that limitations should not be “galling.” The path of gluttony and indulging every appetite is disempowering, but so also is the path of excessive asceticism and unnecessary privations. The hexagram counsels that we aim at “sweet limitation,” limitation that is not too harsh and not too lax but that hits that “sweet spot” between the extremes so that our self-limitation empowers us and allows us to be more alive. The key to sweet limitation is to find just the right voluntarily chosen boundaries that keep us from wasting our energy.
In designing a Sacred Regimen it is wise to look at all the spheres of life that involve large transactions of energy — eating, spending, exercise, activities, relationships, sexual relationships, etc. What transactions seem to steal energy away from your life? For example: excess intake of food and other mood-altering substances, poor nutrition, addictions, poor spending habits, wasting time, etc. Create boundaries to reduce or eliminate wasted energy in various areas. For example, I can decide to sacrifice unworthy foods and other substances that I know are not good for my health and well being. I can also design my Sacred Regimen to include positive energetic transactions that enhance my life and well being such as an appropriate amount of exercise. The design is up to you; the only suggestion is that the guidelines be neither too loose nor too galling. It is also best that the guidelines be as clear and specific and measurable as possible. So, for example, the guideline “try to eat more healthily” is uselessly imprecise, whereas “I will not eat foods that contain refined sugar or trans-fatty acids” is precise and useful. The Sacred Regimen is a Warrior’s tool, and it should be a sharp tool used to make some definite boundaries.
You can also make a great case for the unstructured approach where you focus on what I call “existential impeccability.” With existential impeccability, you focus on mindfully doing the energetically efficient and appropriate thing in the moment. Some would prefer to do that without the prestructured aspect of the regimen. If that path calls to you more, and you are able to make it work, that is another great Warrior stance. You can also bring the stance of existential impeccability into your Sacred Regimen by being path-oriented, rather than goal-oriented. Some people disempower their approach to the Sacred Regimen by being too focused on an end goal. Perhaps they want to fast for a certain number of days, or to lose a given amount of weight, or to achieve a particular level of fitness. I think the regimen only becomes sacred, however, when the journey is the destination, when the regimen is also done for its own value and not merely as a means to an end. Being on the regimen is itself a privileged state, a state of what I call “alchemical tautness,” where the work and the life are both intensified. Of course that tautness and intensity are going to involve spending time out of the comfort zone. Time out of the comfort zone is privileged time, developmental time, time when one is more alive. With the path-oriented stance, the benefits of the regimen are accrued immediately; you do not have to wait for some end goal.
On the other hand, the path-oriented stance is not mutually exclusive of setting goals, or setting a definite interval in time. One can have goals but keep your focus on engagement with the path. One way of path-orienting the Sacred Regimen is to have it set up as a lifelong practice. The key is that there is no formula for the Sacred Regimen except the one you devise for yourself. For example, although I have emphasized the path of moderation, there may be rare occasions where the extreme regimen is called for to create a developmental shock. There may be a time for forty days and nights in the desert. In most cases, however, the heroic, extreme approach will be self-defeating. If one attempts something very extreme, one will tend to swing with the pendulum of enantiodromia toward the other extreme and the excess privation becomes a binge.
Generally it is better not to approach the Sacred Regimen with the grim determination of a commander of a Nazi Panzer division on the Russian Front. I have found that it is better to bring feelings of fun and adventure into the Sacred Regimen through colorful and imaginative names, talismans and rituals. It is better to win the assent of your inner child and some of your other subpersonalities than to engage a practice that they will see as a punishment and begin rebelling from in short order. The Sacred Regimen is a Warrior practice, so think of yourself as a general leading a military campaign — to maintain good discipline you also need good morale. If you want to keep up morale don’t make your regimen too galling, don’t turn your campaign into a death march. Inspire the inner troops, and help to be there with your various subpersonalities to raise morale and keep them disciplined when the going gets rough. Usually it is better to be conservative with your military strategy. The extreme onslaught that aims at a great, final victory is far more likely to produce a total loss, whereas the well-timed effort to gain a modest amount of territory has got a much better chance. So if you’ve been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for twenty years, you could go cold turkey, and in some rare cases that works,but you might be more likely to succeed by phasing cigarettes out while phasing nicotine gum in and then very slowly reducing the amount of nicotine gum. If you do decide to go the heroic path, the slay-the-dragon path of extreme practice, then follow the principle a friend of mine calls “one shot, one kill.” Although the saying comes from the creed of military snipers, applied to the Sacred Regimen it means that you take one shot at the heroic regimen and you either follow all the way through, or if you don’t make it, you retreat immediately and try something completely different.
For me, it is best to ritualize the Sacred Regimen. I like to use a version of the Capsule of Intentionality Ritual I described in my book The Capsule of Intentionality (I’ll put the most relevant parts in a footnote of this card). In the photo you see a little metal keychain capsule and an intentionality document I wrote up for myself on April 11, 2010. I printed the statement in the smallest font and then used a copier to reduce it by 50% so that the resulting document would fit into the little capsule that I carry with me. A key part of the Capsule of intentionality document is my “Lifeline Mission Parameters.” These are very specific guidelines related to diet, exercise, finances, etc that define my Sacred Regimen. Since I believe that the most powerful ritual is the one you consciously design for yourself, rather than the one mechanically repeated from inherited tradition, I mutate the Capsule of Intentionality ritual every time I engage it. For example, this oracle card is part of the ritual of my present Sacred Regimen. There is a private notes section for each Zap Oracle card and I have repeated my Lifeline Mission Parameters there. If I follow through, then I can add to the card anything I learn about the Sacred Regimen by following its path. If I don’t follow through, then I will delete the card, because if I can’t make Sacred Regimen principles work for me, it’s not clear if I should be recommending them to others. The ritual dramatizes for me that something collective is at stake when the Sacred Regimen is engaged. You can use this oracle as part of your Sacred Regimen ritual by doing an issue/choice/problem reading on your approach to the Sacred Regimen. If you have a free oracle membership you could attach your regimen guidelines to the notes field of the reading. I also like to work with a spiritual ally when working on a Sacred Regimen, a trusted person to whom I am accountable and who provides me with feedback. This is another possible way to structure a Sacred Regimen that is entirely up to your discretion.
Depending on the position of the card, consider this a propitious time to take on the transformative path of the Sacred Regimen.
See: The Capsule of Intentionality for a ritual system that formalizes your commitments to yourself and others. Here are a few excerpts:
Level One participation in the Capsule of Intentionality ritual system requires that you compose a Mission Statement. Mission Statement is capitalized because it will consist of the most important words in your life. The Mission Statement is a twenty-five word or less statement of your deepest intentions — the purposes, goals, meanings you are living for.
Writing twenty-five words or less does not take long, but composing these words is worth all the time and soul-searching that it takes to come up with them. If you can’t formulate a Mission Statement, then your life is adrift. I can’t imagine waking up in the morning, and certainly can’t see walking out the front door to do anything without an implicit Mission Statement. The fact that you may never have written down a Mission Statement, of course, doesn’t mean you lack one. Your Mission Statement may well be implicit in your thoughts and actions. But it is a major step toward clarity, focus and effective action to clarify your Mission Statement, writing it on paper so that it becomes a concrete object that you carry with you always.
Your Mission Statement itself is more than symbolic. It is representative of your intentionality, but it is also the literal, functional, language-coded core of your life.
Your Capsule of Intentionality represents your striving to stay true to certain principles and aims, and to maintain continuity of will through time as the chaotic storms rage inside of you and in the world about you. This does not mean that your Mission Statement needs to be unchanging. In level two of this ritual system you will be taking out and copying over your Mission Statement every day. At any time you can modify or radically change your Mission Statement. But you should never do this for superficial reasons or without careful thought and reflection. Before you change your Mission Statement you need to go into your deepest self to be sure about what you are doing. Take your Mission Statement out and copy it over once a day before sleep or upon awakening if you wish. As an absolute minimum, I would take out the Mission Statement and reexamine it, and how well you are living by it, every birthday.
LEVEL TWO — -Lifeline Mission Parameters
Level two involves a daily ritual that builds on level one. Every evening or every morning take out your Mission Statement and write it out on another piece of paper. Then on the back of this paper write down specific goals, tasks, actions that are congruent with the goals of your Mission Statement. You can call this side of the page Lifeline Mission Parameters. For example, visit with a friend, go to work, write in your journal, exercise, buy groceries, are all examples of specific activities. You’ll know at the end of the day whether you wrote in your journal or bought groceries or not. I would avoid generalities like “work harder” or “try to relax.” This is a place to write down specific goals rather than self admonitions. This list is different than a to do list. First, you must make sure that every important part of your Mission Statement has a corresponding action on the Lifeline Mission Parameters side. If you have long term goals, then make sure you have a corresponding activity listed on the Lifeline Mission Parameters side of the paper. If you have long-term goals, it is important to take some action on them every day, even if it is only ten minutes worth. (Though two hours is preferable.) If it seems silly to write down something as inevitable as “go to work,” do it anyway, because the immense energy involved deserves recognition on the paper and you deserve the recognition of a major item to check at the end of the day. If there are items on the paper that you might forget, record them elsewhere so you can keep them in mind. Each one of these activities should be a “Lifeline Mission Objective” meaning something that helps to further or sustain your life. Buying groceries or picking up an application may not be very glamorous, but they are absolutely authentic parts of your quest. In fact, whether or not you carry out these actions will be the real test of your intentionality. Remember, intentionality is revealed by actions, not wishes.