Friday, October 21, 2016

Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination

The last two monthly posts here on The Well of Galabes have outlined two of the three basic elements of magical training—ritual and meditation—and this one will predictably enough proceed to the third, which is divination. Here we pass from the relatively unknown onto familiar ground. Plenty of people who couldn’t tell a banishing ritual from a toasted bagel, and whose notions of meditation more or less amount to tying one’s legs into an overhand knot and chanting “Om, Om, on the Range,” know that astrologers are supposed to be able to predict someone’s destiny from the position of the heavens at the time of birth, tarot readers claim to do the same thing by dealing out funny-looking cards, and so on.

Such practices are extraordinarily common. To the best of my knowledge, there is not now, nor has there ever been, a human society that hasn’t practiced at least a few forms of divination. What’s more,  as societies become more complex, literate, and technologically sophisticated, the availability and popularity of divination go up, not down. Modern industrial society is a case in point. There has never been another civilization in recorded history in which so many different forms of divination were so assiduously practiced by so many people. It’s worth noting that astrology programs were among the first programs that became available once those original clunky home computers hit the market. I still have a copy of my birth chart made in those days, calculated on I forget which pre-TRS-80 machine and printed out on a daisy-wheel printer.

The popularity of divination, now as in past times, is entirely understandable. Most of us would like to get at least a few questions about the future answered in advance. In times of crisis—and when in recorded history have those been far apart?—the desire to glimpse the shape of things to come, and gauge the prospects of different courses of action in advance, is even more self-evident. Fashionable pseudoskeptics of the Carl Sagan variety have trotted out any number of ad hoc hypotheses and question-begging maneuvers to explain why divination, rather than other ways of gauging the future, is the standard human response to that desire. One possibility they haven’t considered, for obvious reasons, is that divination is so popular because it works.

Let’s take a closer look at that unmentionable possibility.  Every form of divination yields a sequence of symbols that have been chosen by some seemingly random means. The word “random,” to be sure, begs a boatload of questions; whether or not anything in the universe is actually random is one of the big questions of philosophy; the crucial point regarding divination, though, is that the sequence of symbols must not be chosen by conscious deliberation. They may be chosen by shuffling cards or yarrow stalks, by pulling pieces of stone out of a bag, by tapping a stick on the sand a random number of times and seeing whether the resulting number is odd or even; they may be determined by the state of the heavens on the moment a person was born, or the moment an astrologer is asked a question; they may be determined, for that matter, by the number and type of birds that fly past a given place—anything that’s outside the control of the conscious mind is fair game for divination.

That’s the thing, of course, that reduces fashionable pseudoskeptics of the Carl Sagan variety to spluttering incoherence the moment divination gets mentioned. It’s an article of faith these days that a sequence of symbols generated in any of the ways just mentioned, or anything like them, can’t possibly communicate anything useful about the future. Let’s turn that faith-based presupposition into a question: how can a symbol generated by what most people call chance yield useful information?

There are at least three relevant answers to that question.

First, it’s a commonplace of experience that human thought almost always runs in ruts, and that a vast number of the problems each of us faces in our daily lives come about because we’re stuck thinking about some issue in ways that make solutions invisible. Very often all that’s needed to solve even the most longstanding personal or interpersonal problem is a willingness to accept a different way of thinking about the problem. This, in turn, divination can readily provide.

Consider a Tarot reading in which the diviner turns up the Six of Swords upright in a position that relates to the querent’s employment. (A querent, in traditional diviner’s jargon, is the person for whom a divination of any kind is cast.) The Six of Swords upright has the traditional meaning of “journey by water,” and a competent diviner will take that in as metaphorical a sense as necessary to make sense of the querent’s situation: say, as an indication that the querent’s job is transitional, a way to move from one “shore” to another. It may well be that the querent has never thought about her job in that light, and the reframing of the issue allows her to see possibilities that had never occurred to her before.

More generally, John von Neumann showed in his famous study of game theory that a strategy that includes a random factor will generally beat a strategy that doesn’t, because the random factor makes it impossible for opponents to anticipate and counter your moves. Divination is among many other things a very effective way to insert a random factor into your actions, and since so many things in life depend on successful competition, the person who includes divination in his or her decision-making process will, all other things being equal, have a greater chance of success than the person who does not.

That’s the first answer. The second unfolds from a detail of divination that’s common knowledge to those who practice it, which is that the more mechanical the interpretation is, the less useful it is. A Tarot reading, again, that’s interpreted via the canned readings in the LWB (“little white booklet”) that comes with the deck is usually pretty useless; a Tarot reading interpreted by an experienced diviner is something else again. Clearly something more than the random dealing of cards is going on here.

Cognitive science has shown over and over again that we know more than we realize we know. The conscious, reasoning human mind, in evolutionary terms, is a late and still poorly debugged addition plopped down over the top of a superbly adapted social primate nervous system, which constantly processes far more information than the reasoning mind can handle in its more laborious way. As our imaginary diviner and querent sit facing each other across a table strewn with Tarot cards, for example, the diviner’s nervous system is picking up a torrent of information from the querent’s posture, movements, voice, pheromones, and much more.

Are these things important? Why, yes; as someone who has Aspergers syndrome, and so basically lacks access to these sources of information, I can tell you from direct experience just how much of normal human interaction depends on them! Under normal circumstances, though, the primate mind talks to the primate mind, and the reasoning mind only notices the emotional tone that results. In order to get more information up into the conscious mind, it’s necessary to do an end run around the normal ways by which the conscious mind gets (and filters out) data.

How do you do that? Ask any old-fashioned psychoanalyst, and he’ll tell you that free association based on arbitrarily chosen symbols is a very effective means. That’s what the diviner does when she deals out the Six of Swords in the place that represents the querent’s employment, considers the card, and calls to mind the traditional meaning of the card. The idea pops into her head: “the job’s not an end in itself, but a transition to something else.” Where did it come from? From a thousand little cues, some verbal, most nonverbal, that let her primate mind know that the querent is unhappy with her job and would be interested in moving to something else if she thought that was possible. So the diviner interprets the card in accordance with the intuition, and the querent’s eyes widen as the unexpected possibilities make themselves visible.

That’s the second answer. The third one moves all the way out past game theory and psychology into the territory that modern thought has marked with big red signs saying DO NOT ENTER and operative mages have marked with smaller signs saying this way to the party. At the core of modern magic is the theory of the astral light—the thesis that there exists a subtle substance not currently known to science that pervades the universe, affects consciousness in predictable ways, and can be deliberately shaped by means of magic. (Yes, we’re talking about the Force; operative mages, and a great many other people such as martial artists, were talking about it millennia before George Lucas was born. Where do you think he got the idea?)

The astral light, according to traditional occult philosophy, is the medium through which astrological influences shape life on earth; it’s the medium through which magical workings propagate their effects across space and time; it’s also the medium through which acupuncture and a good half of the other alternative healing modalities work, just as it’s the medium through which the subtler and spookier martial arts accomplish a good half of their techniques. It’s also something every living thing perceives all the time, but human beings in modern Western industrial societies are pressured, beated, and bribed into ignoring by the time they reach adulthood.

So we have at least three possible ways by which divination can work. Which of them is actually responsible? Why, all of them, of course, and there may be other factors feeding into it as well. The notion that every phenomenon must have one and only one causative mechanism is one of the most widespread superstitions of our time. Of the mechanisms I’ve proposed, the first two are probably the most useful for the casual diviner or the client of an amateur or professional astrologer, card reader, or the like. For the operative mage, though, the third is where the real payoff lies.

One of the central tasks of training in operative magic is learning to perceive the astral light directly, and one of the primary ways of doing that is the regular practice of divination. The mechanism here is the same one that gets a workout in the psychological dimension of divination mentioned above—free association based on a chance collocation of symbols—but the source of information is different; instead of tuning into body language, the diviner tunes into the flow of information through the astral light. What’s more, with practice, the astral light also affects the subtle movements of the body that control the outcome of shuffling cards, or what have you. (Lucas again: “You mean the Force controls your actions?” asks Luke; “Yes, but it also obeys your commands,” says Obi-Wan. Once again, operative mages were there long before the Jedi got around to it.)

It’s with this in mind that the operative mage in training makes regular divination a part of his or her half hour or so of daily practice.

Here’s how it works. Every morning, before you have to tackle the events of the day, you cast a simple reading with whatever divinatory oracle happens to catch your fancy, asking some straightforward question such as, “What do I most need to understand about the events of this day?” You then interpret it, and set it aside. That evening, when the day’s over with, you go back to the reading and interpretation, look it over, and see (a) what you got right, (b) what you got wrong, and (c) what you should have noticed but didn’t. You then do the same thing the next day, and the next, and the next, through the entire course of your magical training.

Please note that in doing so, you’re not trying to prove whether divination works. When you start learning to divine, for you, it generally won’t. You’re trying to learn how to do it, which involves the development of certain very complex skills you probably don’t have yet, and the opening up of certain subtle capacities of perception you probably don’t have yet either. That’s why you cast a reading every morning, and why you compare your readings to the events of the day every evening: the practice becomes a self-correcting process by which you learn through repeated experience what each divinatory symbol is trying to tell you in terms of your daily life.

Three things, broadly speaking, will happen as you pursue this practice on a daily basis. The first is that you’ll get very, very familiar with whatever set of divinatory symbols you happen to be using. Whether it’s Tarot cards, runes, Ogham letters, Lenormand cards, the obscure but fascinating Welsh bardic alphabet called the Coelbren, or what have you, casting a simple daily reading will teach you the symbols and their meanings more effectively than any other method I’ve encountered. This has uses that aren’t limited to divination; many forms of operative magic require a solid grasp of a set of symbols for nondivinatory purposes, and when you’ve cast daily readings using the symbols in question for a year or so, you’ll be more than ready.

The second thing that will happen is that you’ll get really good at casting and interpreting readings, and getting accurate information about the future from those readings. After a certain point—the length of time varies from person to person—you’ll notice that pretty reliably, when you look back over your daily reading, you caught the most important things going on that day. After another point—usually but not always further on—you’ll learn to guide your actions on the basis of insights from your divinations: if your Tarot reading turns up the Seven of Swords, for example, you’ll keep an eye out for dirty tricks on the part of some rival at work, and if it turns up the Two of Cups instead, you’ll know that tonight’s date has romantic possibilities you hadn’t expected, and act accordingly. As a result, your life will improve: not drastically, and not all at once, but you’ll find yourself dodging problems and making use of opportunities more often, and more effectively, than you used to.

It’s the third thing, though, that’s the real payoff for the operative mage. When you’ve been practicing divination regularly for several years, you’ll begin to find that you don’t always need to cast a reading to get the same sort of useful hints from the cosmos that divination provides. The sprawling assortment of human capacities that we lump together under the term “intuition” includes many things, but one of them is a sensitivity to the astral light. (Traditionally, this is said to be mediated through the pineal gland.) As you exercise that capacity through divination, you also develop the capacity to use it without benefit of oracles; you simply know what’s happening, and act accordingly. Am I talking about omniscience? Of course not; the astral sense is no more limitless than any of your other senses, but it can bring you information that your other senses can’t.

So there’s your sequence of basic magical practices: a daily banishing ritual; a daily discursive meditation; and a daily divination. Most people can do this in around thirty minutes a day, give or take a bit of wiggle room—five to seven minutes for the ritual, ten minutes for the meditation, and the rest to cast and interpret the divination. That’s all it takes to set yourself on the path of operative magic.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It isn’t. If you decide to give it a try, I promise you that your mind, your body, the people you live with, and the entire rest of the universe, right out to the comets of the Oort Cloud and the distant stars of the Magellanic Clusters, will spend the next year or so handing you every conceivable reason to do something else with that thirty minutes. It’s amusing in retrospect, though rarely so funny at the time, just how many obstacles get thrown up (in any sense of the phrase you prefer) in the way of those first tentative steps toward magehood. There’s nothing you can do to prevent it—fleeing to a hermitage and barring the doors has been tried, and no, it doesn’t help—and only one response that matters, which is to Just. Keep. On. Doing. Your. Practices. Eventually, if you keep going despite all obstacles, the obstacles fall away, the doors swing wide open, and the fun begins.


Please note, before we proceed, that all the caveats mentioned in the last two posts apply to this one as well. The recommendations I’m making here aren’t meant as quasi-divine commandments that apply to every conceivable system of magic, and anyone who treats them as such will be fed to the first school of arthrodires I happen to encounter. They’re the advice of one longtime practitioner of magic to those who are considering taking up a specific form of that art—the ceremonial high magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and certain of its offshoots—and don’t have a qualified teacher handy.

With that in mind, I’d like to start with a simple note: if you’re working with a specific system of teaching, and it asks you to practice a particular kind of divination in a particular way, for heaven’s sake, do that kind of divination in that way. The curriculum of a magical tradition isn’t just thrown together at random; it’s meant to develop specific skills in a balanced manner, and each step along the way lays groundwork that will be needed later on.

If you’re doing this entirely on your own, on the other hand, without a specific tradition to follow, you really can apply the approach discussed in this post to any system of divination you like. I’ve used it myself over the years to get a good working knowledge of Tarot, geomancy, my ill-fated (so far) Sacred Geometry Oracle, the Irish Ogham alphabet, and the Welsh Coelbren alphabet, and I’m currently tracking astrological transits over my natal chart daily with an eye toward the same sort of learning process, with good results. There are literally hundreds of different methods of divination available on the market just now, so choose an oracle and get cracking!

In unrelated news, a new translation of Eliphas Levi’s The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, by me and longtime Well of Galabes reader Mark Mikituk, will be released in early April of next year. I’m looking for podcasters and bloggers who would be interested in reviewing it. If this is up your alley, put through a comment marked NOT FOR POSTING with your name, email address, and blog or podcast URL, and I’ll see if I can pry loose a review copy for you.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Foundations of Magical Practice: Meditation

Before we get into the second element of basic magical training—if you will, the second foot of the bubbling three-footed cauldron the novice operative mage, like little Gwion, must keep stirring—a brief glance back at an earlier subject is in order. Regular readers will recall a post in April about the emergence of a witch hunt in the Neopagan scene. I’m pleased to say that the post came to the attention of the wannabe witch hunter, Rhyd Wildermuth, who posted an entertaining screed insisting that it was absurd to talk about witch hunts when he hadn’t yet managed to get anyone burned at the stake.

He needs to work on his sense of timing, though.  His screed appeared while one of his allies had a rant on the Neopagan web calling for a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence—that is to say, a witch hunt—against people in the Pagan community whose politics she didn’t like. (It’s been taken down and put back up at least once already, but you can find a screen capture here.) Connoisseurs of historical ignorance will find much to ponder in Wildermuth’s risible claim that violence is only ever committed by leadership figures against the masses, never the other way around.  Admittedly, if you’re a demagogue trying to whip up mob violence against people you hate, it’s probably a good plan to go around insisting that mob violence doesn’t exist; given the abysmal state of education these days, you might even be able to get away with it.

In the meantime, as this sorry business lurches toward its destiny and we wait to see whether it will drag the entire mainstream Neopagan scene down with it, there are more interesting things to talk about.  One of them, as noted above, is the role of meditation in magical training.

(Please note, before we proceed, that all the caveats introduced in last month’s post apply to this one as well. The recommendations I’m making here aren’t  meant as quasi-divine commandments that apply to every conceivable system of magic, and anyone who treats them as such will be beaten with a pterodactyl’s colon. They’re the advice of one longtime practitioner of magic to those who are considering taking up a specific form of magic—the ceremonial high magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and certain of its offshoots—and don’t happen to have a qualified teacher handy. Thank you, and we now return to our regularly scheduled Well of Galabes post.)

There are, as it happens, two common misconceptions about meditation that are best gotten out of the way first, and both of them can be overturned neatly enough by a glance at the word “meditation” itself. The first misconception is that meditation is something foreign, something “Eastern” (whatever that word means on a round planet), invented and practiced by strange people in strange robes far away. The second is that meditation, by definition, is about turning off your thinking mind.

So let’s take a look at the word. “Meditation” isn’t borrowed from Sanskrit, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, or whatever the imaginary language was called that Madame Blavatsky claimed she was translating out of when she made up The Book of Dzyan. It’s a perfectly ordinary English word and, like about forty per cent of English vocabulary, comes originally from Latin. This may suggest to you that Latin-speaking people in the Middle Ages and English-speaking people thereafter knew what meditation is—and if that suggestion has indeed occurred to you, dear reader, you’re quite correct.

In English, though, this word “meditation” only got the meaning of mind-emptying exercises quite recently. You can see this by considering other words in which it’s an element. When we say that a crime was premeditated, for example, that doesn’t mean that the perp spent half an hour in lotus posture chanting a mantra before he did the crime. It means, quite the contrary, that he thought it through in advance. Notice that premeditation isn’t just thinking, it’s focused, purposive thinking.

That’s what meditation has traditionally been in occultism: focused, purposive thinking. That’s actually a tolerably common approach to meditation in Asian spiritual traditions, for that matter; it’s just that the traditions that have been most enthusiastically imported to Europe and America since the latter years of the nineteenth century have been the ones that don’t use that approach. In some Buddhist traditions, for example, it’s quite common to meditate on the four noble truths or the twelve stages of dependent origination, thinking them through, understanding every detail of them, applying them to one’s own experience, and thus learning to think like the Buddha. It’s just that those traditions aren’t the ones that caught on big here in America.

What’s more, this sort of meditation—discursive meditation, to give it its proper name—used to be standard practice in Christian churches. Though I originally encountered it by way of the very sparse instruction given in the knowledge lectures of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, I learned a great deal more from the writings of Joseph King, who was an Anglican bishop in the seventeenth century and whose earnest and detailed books on the subject, at a time when the internet didn’t exist yet, could be read on microfilm in the Wing collection of early English printed books in the basement of the University of Washington library. It was a common habit from the Middle Ages straight through until roughly the First World War; books of themes for meditation were popular and widely available once the printing press was invented; so was another kind of book, to be discussed a bit later, which hasn’t usually been recognized as a resource for meditation.

Let’s go into a little more detail at this point. To get the best results, discursive meditation requires the same sort of preliminaries that the more familiar forms of meditation do. The standard advice among old-fashioned occultists was to sit in a chair with your spine comfortably straight, not leaning against the back; your feet are flat on the floor; your legs are parallel to each other, and bent at a right angle; your hands rest on your thighs close to your knees, and your elbows are at your sides. Every muscle you don’t need to use to stay upright is as relaxed as you can get it. Having assumed the position and deliberately relaxed the muscles just mentioned, you breathe slowly and deeply for several minutes, paying attention to the inflow and outflow of the breath, and turn your mind away from every topic of thought except the theme of your meditation.

The theme? That’s the thing you’re going to be exploring with the focused, purposive thinking we talked about earlier. We’ll get to the choosing of themes in a bit. Whatever the theme is, you hold it before your mind for a while, simply being aware of it; if it’s a bit of text, you might repeat it silently to yourself, while if it’s a visual image you might visualize it as though it’s standing in front of you, and so on. You then think about it in a general way for a little while, find some aspect of it that interests you, and follow out the train of thought all the way to its end. You don’t let your thoughts wander onto other subjects. If, as happens all the time in the early stages of training, your thoughts get away from you, go grab them by the ears and bring them back to the theme. Repeat as necessary. When you’ve gotten all you can out of the train of thought you were following, take a few deep breaths and then shake your muscles to loosen them; that finishes the meditation.

Now let’s talk about themes. You choose your theme before you meditate—in fact, in some occult schools it’s standard practice to choose the theme for each day’s meditation the night before, and go to sleep while turning it over in your mind, so that when you start your meditation first thing in the morning, the theme’s been enriched with all the considerable ingenuity of your subconscious mind. Anything can be a theme for meditation, and what you choose will depend on your personal beliefs and the occult or religious tradition that you’re studying.

In the writings of Bishop Joseph King, for example, verses from the Bible were the automatic go-to default option for meditation themes. (The numbered verses of the Bible are in fact very nicely sized for use as themes. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—a Christian occultist who can’t get at least one good solid session of discursive meditation out of that, if not considerably more, simply isn’t trying.) People who come to discursive meditation from other religious backgrounds can choose texts better suited to their own interests, and some magical texts are specifically set up for this practice. Those readers who wonder why Dion Fortune’s famous textbook The Mystical Qabalah is divided into numbered paragraphs can draw their own conclusions.

Another approach, very common back in the day, was to have students read a chapter of a textbook or a lesson from a correspondence course once a week, and while reading it, look for “seed thoughts”—short passages, from a phrase to a sentence in length, that sum up a detail of magical teaching that catches the student’s attention. Each student would write down seven seed thoughts from the assigned reading, and use those for the themes for the next seven days’ meditation sessions. It’s an effective approach, and it has the advantage that when you’ve finished the book or the correspondence course, you can turn around and go through it again. I promise you that if the material’s any good, you’ll find a completely different set of seed thoughts the second time around.

Texts, though, aren’t the only game in town, not by a long shot. Those of my readers who’ve had any exposure to traditional occultism will know already that there’s quite the plethora of odd symbolic emblems and imagery to be found there. From the enigmatic pictures on the 22 Tarot trumps through the ornate allegorical emblems of the old alchemical literature to the tracing boards used by initiatory orders, there’s a lot of puzzling imagery out there. Various people have explained those in various ways, but even in modern occult literature, you have to look long and hard to find a discussion of the practical application these things used to have, which is as themes for meditation.

It’s in dealing with these images, and with the elaborate symbolic narratives that so often accompany them, that discursive meditation really comes into its own. Most of the older occult schools encoded much, most, or all of their teaching in these emblems and narratives, and then handed them to the student to unpack through discursive meditation. To use a contemporary metaphor, these things are zip files from which pages and pages of documents can be extracted, and the extraction program—yep, that would be discursive meditation. That was partly a security measure and partly a method of training.

If you pick up one of the more ornate alchemical texts—the Book of Lambspring, the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, the Trinosophia of the Comte de St.-Germain, Fulcanelli’s La Mystere des Cathedrales, or what have you—and try to make any kind of sense of it without discursive meditation, your choice of destination is limited to the Slough of Despond on the one hand and La-La Land on the other.  Get a good basic knowledge of alchemical thought by way of the less cryptic texts, and then go through your chosen book one detail at a time using discursive meditation, and doors to very interesting places start opening.

That brings us to the third source of themes for discursive meditation in the occult traditions, which is initiatory ritual. In a ritual of initiation—a subject we’ll be covering in much more detail down the road a bit—the candidate goes through what amounts to a symbolic narrative, in which words, emblems, gestures, and a variety of other things are woven together in much the same way as incidents in one of the alchemical tales just mentioned. When it works the way it’s supposed to, initiation furthers the awakening of previously inaccessible states and capacities of consciousness—but these days, it very often doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, and the reason behind that is the collective amnesia that swallowed the practice of discursive meditation in the early part of the twentieth century.

In earlier times, before the term “meditation” got redefined as mind-emptying, it was standard for those who had been through an initiation ritual to go over it in meditation, one detail at a time. That helped get the effects of the initiation solidly fixed in the initiate’s awareness, and it also gave him or her a head start on learning the ritual to as to be able to help confer it on others. There were other things done in occult schools to help make the effects of initiation stick, and some of them are still in use today, but discursive meditation used to be an important part of the initiatory toolkit. The same approach works just as well, by the way, when applied to the sacramental rituals of the religion of your choice.

Finally, there’s another important item in the traditional occultist’s toolkit that needs regular doses of discursive meditation to keep it from running off the rails. It has a variety of names: the Golden Dawn traditions call it “scrying in the spirit vision,” for example, while Carl Jung and his followers call it “active imagination.” (One of these days I’m going to have to do a post about the awkward fact that Jung wasn’t a psychologist who dabbled in occultism, but rather an occultist—an extremely learned and competent one—who successfully managed to pass off a system of occult philosophy and practice as a school of psychology; still, that’s a topic for another day.) Under any name, it’s the use of the trained imagination as an instrument of perception.

The very simplest version of scrying in the spirit vision is an exercise most people who’ve dabbled in occultism have done at least once. You take a symbolic image—a Tarot trump, let’s say—and imagine it expanding, until the frame becomes a doorway and the scene it shows becomes three-dimensional. You then imagine yourself walking through the doorway and having a conversation with the person or people on the other side. Because we know more than we consciously realize, this sort of exercise routinely turns up insights the conscious mind can’t get at in other ways; furthermore, with regular practice, what starts out as a simple daydream evolves into an intensely experienced journey through vivid dreamscapes packed with unexpected meaning and power.

There are, of course, downsides. The most common, as Israel Regardie liked to point out, is that this sort of work can very easily degenerate into a kind of astral tourism in which junketing around in the spirit vision becomes an end in itself rather than a tool for the attainment of knowledge about the self and the universe. Rarer though far more problematic is what happens when the scryer forgets that the things perceived by the trained imagination are symbols of inner realities rather than realities in their own right, and takes the symbolic experienced literally.

That’s problematic enough by itself—it usually means the end of any significant magical development—but when you mix in the very common desire to feel important, the results in extreme cases can range from the founding of a new religious cult demanding absolute faith in the visions of the self-proclaimed prophet, on the one hand, to a rapid descent into acute schizophrenia on the other. More common, if less colorful, is the sort of pseudospiritual gossip that fills so many well-meant tomes, in which bits of visionary experience with obvious symbolic meaning get turned into chatter.

Here’s an example. A long time ago, when dinosaurs strode the earth, I used to get away from the tawdry realities of a suburban adolescence by taking classes on occult subjects in some of the hip neighborhoods of Seattle. At one of these, the speaker earnestly informed us all that Jesus had traveled to Britain during the years not discussed in the New Testament, and married a Druid princess. Her evidence was of course some mode of inner experience—I honestly don’t recall whether she got that from a channeled entity, saw it while scrying, or what have you—and since there were at that point in the late 1970s, by a conservative estimate, eleven godzillion minor mystics in North America who all had their own visionary accounts of where Jesus spent those undocumented years, and each of these accounts contradicted all the others, I smiled and nodded and suppressed an impulse to roll my eyes.

Look at that as a symbol, though, and it stops being a bit of pseudohistorical gossip and turns into something meaningful. It may have been meaningful on a personal level—the vision may have been trying to tell her that she needed both the values symbolized by Christ and those symbolized by the notion of a Druid princess, or it may have been trying to tell her that she needed to balance and harmonize worship of Christ with reverence for the elemental powers. It may also have been meaningful on a transpersonal level—the vision may have been suggesting that modern Christianity needs to face up to the values that the symbol of marriage to a Druid princess represents, such as reverence for nature and a less prudish sense of the relationship of masculine and feminine principles. A few sessions of discursive meditation on the vision might well have told her how to make sense of the symbol, but since she apparently never tried that, we’ll never know.

Like ritual, finally, meditation is best done daily. The standard habit is to do your daily banishing ritual and then, in the space cleared and cleansed by the ritual, do your meditation. The ritual will take you five minutes or so, and fifteen minutes of meditation, including the initial relaxation and breathing, is enough to start with; that accounts for twenty minutes of the thirty minutes a day I mentioned earlier will be enough to make you a capable operative mage. We’ll get into the last ten minutes next month.


Discursive meditation is kind of a hobby horse of mine, as the above has probably demonstrated! The upside of that is that nearly every book of mine that discusses magical training at all has at least a brief discussion of discursive meditation, and most have much more. Readers who are interested in the classic Hermetic Golden Dawn system will find a good account of discursive mediation in my cowritten book Learning Ritual Magic; those who prefer the system of Druid practice associated with the Ancient Order of Druids in America will find a detailed discussion in my book The Druidry Handbook, while those who fancy the hybrid Druid/Golden Dawn system I mostly practice these days will find a similar discussion in The Celtic Golden Dawn.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Foundations of Magical Practice: Ritual

Last month’s post, as I noted at the time, was meant as a backhanded introduction to magical training. That sort of introduction is necessary just now, because of a certain bad habit common among those who don’t know a great deal about operative magic. If, like me, you write books and give talks on magic, you can expect to meet plenty of people who have never worked their way through a curriculum of magical training, but are convinced that they can put together such a curriculum on the basis of their own likes and dislikes, and that the system thus constructed will be as good, if not better, than a system constructed by an experienced mage.

Not so. Magic is not whatever you want it to be; it’s a difficult and demanding craft, and like all crafts, it requires the development of a great many skills that are not obvious to those who haven’t practiced it systematically. Nor—and this is crucial—is it without risk. There are methods of training and practice that most people can follow in relative safety, but it takes a certain amount of practical experience and technical knowledge to recognize the differences between these and other methods that are far from safe. Where the rewards are significant, the dangers are real, and certain wrongheaded ways of approaching magical training can mess you over in significant ways.

That’s what my look at Julius Evola’s brief and ineffectual foray into magic was meant to suggest. To be fair to Evola, things could have turned out much, much worse. I’m thinking here of the fad for kundalini yoga that flared and burnt itself out in Californian occult circles during the 1920s, in the last years of Theosophy’s boomtime. Manly P. Hall, a sympathetic observer as well as a major occult teacher in his own right, described the consequences in one of his books. Young healthy Theosophists launched into practices they thought would make them enlightened masters; one by one, they turned pale, sickened, and died. (Mishandle kundalini training and you risk screwing up your endocrine system; my guess is that’s what killed them.) That was an extreme case—most other forms of magical dysfunction are noticeably less terminal—but it’s worth keeping in mind that we’re not talking about harmless forces.

That said, there are certain courses of training that can be done in perfect safety by most people, and I propose to talk about one of them here.

A few caveats are in order. First, the training program I’m about to outline is not intended for those who simply want to practice a little helpful magic to improve unsatisfactory aspects of their own lives and those of their friends. If that’s what you want out of magic—and though there’s been a lot of prejudice against such things in occult circles, my experience is that it’s a valid option—you don’t need the kind of training I’ll be sketching out.  What you need instead is a good introductory book on some form of folk magic, such as old-fashioned Southern conjure. The magical training I’m discussing aims at the awakening of the higher potentials of human consciousness; while it also involves practices that can fix a lot of unsatisfactory things in the student’s life, that’s more or less a useful side effect.

Second, the training program I’m about to outline is not the only option, and the practices I plan on exploring aren’t applicable to every kind of magic. In the western world these days, there are broadly speaking three major currents of ceremonial magic.  There are other kinds of magic , of course, and the traditions of folk magic just referenced are among them; there are also a good many smaller traditions of ceremonial magic, far more than any one person knows about. The three main currents are simply the ones you can count on seeing pretty much anywhere in the Western world.

Broadly speaking, there’s an English current, which runs from John Dee et al. to the Golden Dawn, with an infusion of Eliphas Levi en route; from there to Dion Fortune and her pupils and associates, of whom Israel Regardie was one, and from there to most modern Anglo-American ceremonial magic. There’s a central European current, which runs from the 18th-century Rosicrucian movement, also with an infusion of Eliphas Levi, through a great many names unfamiliar to my English-speaking readers; the one well known in England and America is Franz Bardon, whose works are of very high quality. Finally, there’s a Traditional current, which has emerged in recent years, and seeks to resurrect such older magical practices as goetic evocation and Renaissance astrological magic.

I’m talking about the first of these three options. If you’re practicing one of the others, or one of the less well known systems of Western magic, or for that matter a system of magic with its roots outside of Europe, my advice can be summed up in one sentence: ignore what I’m saying and follow the path you’re on. Similarly, if you’re studying magic in what I’ve called the English tradition, and your teacher says something that differs from my counsel, that same sentence applies.  These posts are meant for people who want to follow a magical path, find the English tradition appropriate to their needs, and don’t happen to have access to a teacher or a school they feel they can trust.

Finally, operative ceremonial magic isn’t for everyone. It’s a specific path of training and practice within the wider field of occultism, and there are other paths of training and practice within that wider field that pursue their own routes toward the absolute. With those caveats in mind, we can proceed.

Learning magic requires the mastery of a great many unfamiliar skills. Fortunately for the student, they can be grouped together into practices that exercise a range of magical skills at once. Half an hour of practice every day, divided among the three basic practices I’ll be setting out, is enough to take a total beginner without a single clue about magic and lead him or her step by step to the summits of the art.

Every day? Yes, every day.  A lot of people balk at this. These days, especially, a lot of people want to think that they’re so magically talented, they don’t have to put in the practice. “Magic pours from me like sweat”—yes, I’ve actually had someone tell me this. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Learning magic is like learning to play a musical instrument: the only way to get good at it is to put a great deal of time into studying and practicing it, and the best way to do the latter is to make time for practice every single day. I have yet to meet a competent operative mage who didn’t practice daily, and I have yet to meet anyone who practiced daily who didn’t become a competent operative mage.

With that in mind, let’s move to the first of the three categories of practice, which is ritual.

Ross Nichols, the founder of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), called ritual “poetry in the realm of acts.” That’s a good first step toward understanding, because just as a poem is a way of using language to focus consciousness in unexpected ways, ritual is a way of using embodied actions to do the same thing. Put another way, ritual is one of the few performing arts whose performers are also its primary audience. . To perform ritual, you coordinate physical motion, vocalization, imagination, and intention to form more or less complex patterns of meaning, which shape your consciousness.

Repeated regularly, that shaping becomes a potent force for the transformation of personality. It also, and not coincidentally, teaches you a bunch of skills that you’re going to need to develop in order to become a competent operative mage. You need, for example, to be able to build up visual imagery in your mind with a great deal of intensity, and coordinate it with your physical movements and senses; you need to be able to vocalize words of power in a distinctive way, called “vibration” in magical textbooks, which sets up palpable buzzing sensations at any chosen point inside or outside your body; you need to be able to hold an intention firmly in your mind through a series of ritual activities—and you need to be able to do these and a number of other things all at the same time. How do you learn that? By taking a single, relatively short ritual that includes all these things, and doing it once a day until the skills in question become second nature.

You can get those benefits from any short ritual you like, for any purpose you can imagine. There’s another important factor, though. When you begin magical training, you’re entering into contact with unfamiliar realms of being. You’ve been surrounded by those realms all your life, and they’ve shaped your consciousness and your behavior in ways most people never notice. Once you begin to notice those realms, your relationship to them will change; you’re likely to attract attention on the part of some of the beings who dwell in those realms, and not all such beings have good intentions.

You’ll also begin to notice that not everything that moves through those realms is good to have on and around you. The inner planes, to use a convenient phrase for these unfamiliar conditions of being, contain influences of sickness as well as health, hatred as well as love, madness as well as sanity. There is also, due largely to the conditions of modern life, a great deal of plain old muck that it’s good to get off you. As English is not well equipped with terms for such things, I like to borrow a Japanese word from the technical terminology of Shinto, and refer to the muck in question as kegare.

According to Shinto priests with whom I’ve discussed the matter, kegare—the word, by the way, is pronounced as though it rhymes with “the car, eh,” not as though it rhymes with “she-bear”—is one of two kinds of impurity that can get in the way of harmonious interactions with the realm of the kami, the spiritual potencies revered in Shinto. Tsumi comes from wrong relationships with other people and the environment, and thus has an ethical dimension. Kegare, by contrast, has nothing to do with ethics; it’s not a synonym for “sin;” it’s simply a matter of coming into contact with substances and influences that cause an assortment of problematic reactions when brought into the immediate presence of the kami. Do you have kegare on you? If you haven’t purified yourself, you can bet on it.

Concepts very closely equivalent to kegare are found in traditional religious and spiritual systems around the world, and so are methods for getting rid of it. Those methods vary, and again, if you’re already working in a tradition that has such methods, keep on doing what you’ve been taught. In the traditions of operative magic I’m discussing here, though, the standard method for getting yourself clean of kegare is the daily practice of a banishing ritual.

This habit has come in for a certain amount of criticism of late in the Neopagan scene, most of it from people who don’t practice operative magic themselves and so have no particular reason to know what they’re talking about. These critics claim, among other things, that performing banishing rituals is disrespectful, hierarchical, chases away friendly spirits, and implies that there’s something wrong with a space that hasn’t been banished. To be quite frank, this is nonsense. They might as well insist that washing your hands after you’ve used the toilet is wrong because it’s disrespectful and hierarchical toward fecal bacteria, chases away microbes that would be perfectly happy to inhabit your mouth, and implies that there’s something wrong with dysentery.

The comparison is tolerably precise, as it happens.  Banishing rituals are to magical sanitation what soap and hot water are to physical sanitation, and in both cases, they should be applied regularly, as well as on specific occasions, for optimum health. In the practice of operative magic, before you perform any magical working, you need to be able to establish a state of balanced clarity in the working space, and you need to be able to restore the working space to the same state of balanced clarity once you’re finished, to keep the influences you’ve summoned from bleeding over into the rest of your life and that of anyone else who lives with or near you; that’s the specific application. A state of balanced clarity, on the other hand, is a good thing to inhabit as a general rule, and the daily practice of a banishing ritual is one effective way of getting there; that’s the general application—and of course it’s also relevant that practicing a banishing ritual every day is a very good way to be sure that you can do it to good effect when it’s really needed.

Most banishing rituals in common use these days follow much the same pattern, and can be traced back by one route or another to the Conjuration of the Four, a ritual presented (in typically evasive form) in the pages of Eliphas Levi’s Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic. In all its many variants—the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram practiced in the Golden Dawn, the Sphere of Protection practiced in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and so on—it sets out a circle or sphere, defines the center and the boundary, invokes a balanced and potent spiritual influence into the center, and establishes certain points on the periphery (the four directions in a circle, those plus above and below in a sphere) as representations of certain other spiritual potencies. The operative mage typically begins at the center, goes to the periphery, and then returns to the center.

I’ve used the somewhat vague term “spiritual potencies” here, and that’s a little evasive. In most traditional banishing rituals, you’re invoking either the Christian God and his angels, or some set of Pagan gods and goddesses. There are exceptions—the Sphere of Protection in particular was designed by its creator, Dr. John Gilbert, to work with impersonal spiritual powers as well as with divine persons—but by and large, ceremonial magic invokes deities. It doesn’t require belief in them, but it does require openness to the possibility that when you call, something might just answer, and it’s not a good idea to go around invoking deities you actively dislike. Half the reason so many people have had very mixed experiences with ceremonial magic, I’m convinced, is that a lot of people who can’t stand the God of Christianity have been performing rituals that constantly invoke him by his traditional names!

There’s more going on than this, of course, and those who know their way around the literature of psychology will already have guessed part of it. One of the things that made Swiss psychologist Carl Jung famous was his focus on mandala symbolism; he found that people under certain kinds of serious psychological stress tended to dream, daydream, and doodle images with some resemblance to the traditional mandalas or sacred diagrams of Hindu and Buddhist lore—that is, circular diagrams in which the center and the four quarters are of symbolic importance—and he also found that encouraging patients to follow out that habit, and draw or paint mandalas in as much detail as seemed appropriate, seemed to help them resolve their inner conflicts. He insisted, though, that these images had to be spontaneous, and that it would do no good simply to enact them according to some formal pattern.

There, as it happens, he was quite wrong. A Jungian mandala—a circle with symbolic emphasis on the center and the four quarters—can be just as effective when done to an established pattern; all that’s required is that it be repeated over and over again, using concentration and certain other methods to get the mind moving spontaneously along the patterns thus drawn. That’s what a banishing ritual does. It establishes a Jungian mandala in space, and then places the mage at the center, the place of mingled powers, where the forces of the four directions are in perfect balance. That same balance among the powers then, over time, manifests itself in the physical body, subtle body, and mind of the mage.

As noted above, though, that’s only part of the picture. Another part comes from the spiritual potencies that are being invoked in the ritual. One common misunderstanding of banishing rituals is that they somehow chase away all spiritual influences, leaving a vacuum. Not so; when you perform a banishing ritual, you’re doing quite a bit of invoking, and it’s the influences you invoke that do the heavy lifting of bringing the space into the state of balanced clarity mentioned above. A space that’s been properly banished is full, not empty—but it hasn’t been filled at random. The influences you’ve brought in are in a state of balance so precise that you can build anything you like on the foundation they provide.

Two other notes may be worth inserting here. First, it’s not at all uncommon for students in the very first stages of practice to be taught to alternate two different forms of the same ritual, one banishing, one invoking. The difference is straightforward. When you perform the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, let’s say, you establish the four elemental energies at the periphery of the circle, but the main influence that fills the space is the influence you’ve invoked into the center: in the version of the ritual practiced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its many offshoots, the Christian God; in the version we practice in the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn, the transcendent Godhead whose name is concealed behind the letters O.I.W.

In the Lesser Invoking Ritual, by contrast, you’re calling in the forces of the four elements, and so those are the primary influences that fills the space you’ve marked out. The difference is worth experiencing, as it helps the beginner get a handle on the way that different influences feel. After the basic stages of training are past, though, the usual practice is to go to daily banishings, and bring in other modes of ritual in which specific energies are invoked—and there are other rituals, such as the Sphere of Protection, which include formal invokings and banishings in the same ceremony and so take care of the process that way.

The second note that’s worth putting in here is a reminder that practicing a banishing ritual isn’t the be-all and end-all of magic. It’s a basic exercise done daily, like playing scales on a piano or horse stance training in a traditional kung fu style. You start with that, and you keep doing it, but you add other things as you develop the necessary capacities—and exactly the same thing is true in magic.

So that’s what a banishing ritual is, what it does, and why you should plan on practicing one of them every day, preferably first thing in the morning, if you have any interest in learning the kind of magic I’m discussing here. As for where to learn the actual nuts and bolts—well, for that we turn to...


There are some hundreds of books that cover basic training in the kind of ceremonial magic I practice, and most of them teach a banishing ritual. For a variety of reasons, not all of them crassly financial, I do tend to recommend my own books. If you’re comfortable invoking the Christian God and his angels, the Hermetic version of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, which does that, is covered in Learning Ritual Magic; if you would prefer to invoke the British deities of the Druid Revival tradition, the Druidical version of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram is covered in The Celtic Golden Dawn; while the Sphere of Protection, which can be used to invoke any set of deities you happen to revere, and can also work with impersonal powers, is covered at length in The Druid Magic Handbook.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Not to Learn Magic: An Introductory Note

Lately I’ve been sorting through my collection of books on occultism and deciding which of them still need a place on my bookshelves. That’s a useful chore at intervals, if only because new books are always coming out and bookshelf space is regrettably finite; still, it has a little more importance this time around, as this sorting comes at something of a turning point in my occult career.

A bit of autobiography may be useful here. From my first tentative dabblings in magic in the mid-1970s until 1994, when I was initiated into the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), I worked pretty much exclusively with the Golden Dawn tradition of practical occultism, as interpreted by Israel Regardie on the one hand, and Dion Fortune and her students W.E. Butler, William Gray, and Gareth Knight on the other. That was partly a choice of necessity, since the Golden Dawn system was very nearly the only thoroughly developed curriculum of occult study and practice you could get in those days—if, that is, you happened to be a geeky young man with very little money, no connections in the occult scene, and no access to occult literature except via a few not very impressive bookstores and the kind of mail order catalogues that carried Anna Riva’s Magic Oils, photocopied talismans out of the Key of Solomon, and what passed, in those rather more innocent times, for manuals of racy sex.

Even after I found my spiritual home in Druidry, I continued my Golden Dawn studies and practices. My completion of the OBOD study course in 2001, though, marked a turning point. By that time it was a good deal easier to get access to a wide range of magical instruction, and I’d also picked up a reading knowledge of Latin and French, which opened doors to a range of traditions most people in the American occult scene have still never heard of. By that time, too, I’d worked my way through the Golden Dawn system in its entirety, and while there was still plenty of work there for me to do—you can easily spend an entire lifetime working through the possibilities of any reasonably complex system of magic, and never run out of things to do—I was ready to explore something else for a while.

Exploring something else, in turn, occupied the next fifteen years. I sought initiation in two other Druid orders, and duly became a Druid Adept in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and a Third Order priest in the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA), but my vagaries weren’t limited to Druidry by any means. Among other things, I completed extensive study programs in Renaissance astrological magic and old-fashioned Southern conjure, practiced radionics using a homebuilt Hieronymus machine, devoted some serious time to laboratory alchemy, dove headfirst into sacred geometry, geomancy, and both traditional and modern astrology, got competent at two systems of alternative healing with important ties to occultism, and put ten years into earning instructor’s credentials in one of the old temple styles of t’ai chi ch’uan.

Then there were the books. My idea of a good time tolerably often amounts to a quiet room and a good book, so I worked my way through most of the occult literature of the western world, from ancient Greek Neoplatonist theurgic writings (thank Zeus for good translations!) straight through to the latest oozing-edge products of post-post-postmodern (insert one: C, K, X)aos magi(insert one: c, ck, k, que).  There were plenty of things I never got around to doing—I’ve never felt the least attraction to Wicca, for example, so I remain cheerfully ignorant about its inner teachings, and a certain discomfort with the role of clueless white guy has kept me from seeking initiation into any of the Third World magical religions available in America these days—but all in all, I think my wanderings managed to give me a tolerably good glimpse at the landscape of possibilities open to the modern occultist.

That led me to the turning point mentioned above. In the wake of my resignation as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America last December, I gradually woke to the realization that I’d done as much roaming across the magical landscape as seemed appropriate, and it was time to settle down and get back to work on something approximating the traditions I’d originally learned. Druidry, as noted above, is my spiritual home, but fusing Golden Dawn practices with Druid Revival philosophy and symbolism was done successfully in the early twentieth century.  Even though the teachings of the orders that accomplished that fusion are apparently lost, I had no trouble reverse engineering them back into existence—the first results of that act of reinvention have already been published as The Celtic Golden Dawn, and other volumes are in preparation. Some of the things I studied during my fifteen years of wandering have also contributed to the resulting synthesis, but plenty of others haven’t, and one consequence is that a lot of books I collected in my journeys have outlived their usefulness and are being released, by way of a convenient used book store, into the hands of others.

All of which brings me to the hefty and slightly battered paperback sitting on my desk as I write these words. Its title is Introduction to Magic, and it was written by members of the UR Group, a circle of Italian occultists betweeen the wars who worked more or less under the headship of the celebrated and notorious Julius Evola. Though the book on my desk, a capable English translation by Guido Stucco of the first of the three Italian volumes, saw print at the peak of the modern occult boom in 2001, it made only the tiniest splash in the English-speaking occult scene on its publication, and pretty much sank without a trace thereafter.

Part of that was due to its chief author. Few people these days can read a book by Julius Evola without feeling, at least once, the urge to fling it across the room. If Evola is watching his posthumous career from some cold Hyperborean summit, he must be laughing mordantly, because this is exactly the reception he wanted. He loathed the modern world and everything it stood for, and his icy contempt for modernity led him to construct an ethos and a spirituality that flies in the face of everything the modern western world considers good, valid, and true. It doesn’t help, of course, that he condemned Mussolini’s government for not being fascist enough, spent the last part of the Second World War as an officer in the Waffen-SS, and became a major source of inspiration for neofascist political, cultural, and spiritual movements once the war was over.

It’s common these days for biographical data like these to lead people to insist that books by any such author should never be read, discussed, or even mentioned. As I noted in a recent post over in the other blog, though, I consider that attitude to be somewhere on the notional spectrum between self-defeating and just plain silly. For the serious student of occult philosophy, in particular, an encounter with Evola’s ideas and personality—the two are very much of a piece—is essential. This isn’t because I agree with the man; I don’t. Neither, though, do I agree with a good many of the attitudes and ideas he chose to attack. Evola is among many other things a near-perfect case study in one of the rules of magical philosophy I’ve discussed here and elsewhere: the principle that, far more often than not, the opposite of one bad idea is another bad idea.

At some point in the not too distant future, in fact, I plan on devoting several posts here to a discussion of Evola’s magnum opus, Revolt Against the Modern World. This month’s post, though, has a different theme. In recent months, several readers of this blog have raised questions about what constitutes an effective and balanced course of magical training, one that guides the student step by step toward the awakening of the higher potentials of the individual without causing the sort of emotional and psychological imbalances so often seen among failed occultists. As I paged through Introduction to Magic, trying to decide whether to give it shelf space or sell it to the used book store mentioned earlier, it occurred to me that one very good way to start that conversation is to take a close look at a system of magical training that is neither effective nor balanced.

The fact of the matter is that Evola’s UR Group was a wretched flop, and the inadequacy of its system of training is a very large part of the reason why. The Group was founded in early 1927 and blew itself apart in late 1929, having achieved none of the goals Evola so confidently set out for it; the cause of death was a series of internal crises that will be wearily familiar to those who know their way around the more dysfunctional ends of today’s Neopagan scene.  Furthermore, according to the useful preface contributed to the book by Renato del Ponte, two later groups of occultists who attempted to revive the UR Group’s teachings crashed and burned in exactly the same way. Part of that is a phenomenon occultists call the “tainted sphere,” which we’ll discuss in a later post, but there’s another factor at work: the practical instructions for training given in Introduction to Magic are mediocre at their best moments and seriously problematic at their worst.

It probably needs to be repeated here that I’m talking about the practical instructions for training, not the philosophical and symbolic essays included in the UR Group papers, which are generally of a very high quality. Evola himself was profoundly erudite, with an extraordinary if one-sided grasp of mystical philosophy, and some of the other UR Group members—Arturo Reghini arguably first among them—were his equals if not his superiors. (Reghini deserves to be much better known in the English-speaking world than he is. Good translations of his writings on the Pythagorean tradition, in particular, would be extremely valuable.) The difficulty here is that a profound grasp of esoteric philosophy is not the same as a practical working knowledge of the requirements of magical training.

Consider the parallel predicament of a theoretical physicist who decides that his physics Ph.D. from Stanford qualifies him to rebuild his home’s sewers. In theory, this is quite true:  an education in theoretical physics covers all the forces that affect a sewer system, from gravity and pressure through adhesion, thermal expansion, and so on. The fact remains that there are a great many practical tricks to rebuilding a sewer system that are not obvious from the perspective of a purely theoretical education. Thus a theoretical physicist who sets out to rebuild his sewer system on the basis of abstract principles is almost certainly going to end up, at some point, covered from head to foot in raw sewage. That’s basically what happened to Evola and the other members of the UR Group.

Turn the pages of Introduction to Magic and it’s not hard to see why. Setting aside the philosophical and symbolic essays—which again are generally of high quality—and the turgid rhetoric that seems to have been de rigueur for occult authors in that era, what you get, in terms of practical work, consists of: (a) standard advice on developing consciousness and will in everyday life, mostly cribbed from Eliphas Lévi; (b) an assortment of exercises in meditation and visualization, not well integrated with one another; (c) a few exercises with a magical mirror, for one or two persons; and (d) a simple ritual centering on Pietro d’Abano’s invocation of the archangel of the Sun, without any of the preliminary training needed to make rituals work.  As a set of basic practices, that has serious problems: it leaves out a number of things essential to the novice in operative magic, and it’s imbalanced in ways that will produce (and in fact did produce) predictable problems.

The gaps in the training the UR Group provided its members are best described by contrast with a more complete and systematic course of training, and so that discussion will take place in a later post. The imbalances are quite another matter. It was fashionable in Evola’s time for avant-garde intellectuals to adopt a pose of ruthlessness, hardness, and icy indifference to humanity, and Evola went in for that with the same thoroughness he applied to every other subject that interested him. He seems to have found the pose congenial—and of course he was hardly the only one.

A comparable figure in many ways, though intellectually Evola’s inferior, was an older contemporary of his, the English occultist Aleister Crowley.  Unlike Evola, Crowley studied magic in an established tradition, that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but blew out of that Order and reworked its teachings to fit his own sense of what magic (or as he insisted on spelling it, “magick”) ought to be about. Like Evola, Crowley set out to revolt against the modern world; like Evola, what he actuallly revolted against was the world of his parents’ generation, in favor of the latest fashionable ideas of the modern world—it shows some of the core differences between English and Italian culture that Crowley rebelled especially against England’s sexual repressiveness, while Evola rebelled especially against the grand Italian ideal of umanità, humanity or humaneness.

Both men cultivated the same trendy pose of icy ruthlessness et al.; both, interestingly enough, were mountain climbers; both thought they could transform the world through magic, and failed completely. Crowley just kept at it, with a prodigious lack of success—the posthumous emergence of his teachings as a major theme in modern occultism is almost entirely the work of Grady McMurtry, who picked up the disorderly heap of material Crowley left behind, reworked it into a coherent system, and reinvented the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an order Crowley hijacked from its original founders and ran into the ground, as a vehicle for that system.

Evola, for his part, responded to the parallel failure of the UR Group by turning from magic to politics. His entire involvement with magic began and ended in the three years the UR Group functioned, and these were very early in his life—when the UR Group was founded, he was only twenty-six years old. His decision to turn to political action, and from there to cultural politics, was a sensible one. Since he was not the sort of person who could submit to another’s guidance and instruction, he was never going to get the kind of systematic education in magic he needed to accomplish his goals—and the lack of a systematic education in magic lay at the heart of his failure as a teacher of that art.

It’s a failure that stalks everyone who tries to come up with an original system of magical training without first mastering some existing system from top to bottom, and finding out what systems of magical training are supposed to accomplish. One of the goals of magical training, to turn to technical language for a moment, is the equilibration of the lower self:  in less opaque terms, the balancing out of the habitual imbalances of the personality, so that the aspiring mage can use his or her habits of thought and feeling rather than being used by them. Magical systems cooked up by people who haven’t had such a training inevitably miss this; having projected the habitual imbalances of their personalities onto the cosmos—and we all do this, until appropriate disciplines teach us how to stop—they end up reinforcing their imbalances rather than equilibrating them.

Evola’s choice of a basic magical ritual is a good example of this, though it’s hardly the only one, and it also demonstrates one of the common problems with trying to work out a system of magical training on first principles. From a metaphysical and symbolic perspective, it’s entirely appropriate to treat the Sun as a symbol of the Absolute, and so Evola pulled a solar invocation out of its original context in a carefully designed set of Renaissance-era invocations of the planetary archangels, on the assumption that his students could use a ritual based on that invocation to attain the Absolute.

The difficulty here is that novice mages don’t operate on the plane of the Absolute. They operate on the planes of form, and if you invoke the Sun on the planes of form, you won’t get the Absolute; you’ll get the kind of solar influence that astrologers, for example, know well; and if you invoke the Sun only, without equilibrating it with the other planetary forces, you can pretty much count on pushing your personality in the direction of too much solar influence, which will make you behave like an arrogant blowhard—the astrologically literate may imagine a really out-of-control Leo here.  If your personality already tends toward arrogance and self-glorifying egocentricity, furthermore, this fate is going to be all but impossible to avoid, because the energies of the ritual and the dysfunctions of the self form a feedback loop that drowns out the signals that something’s gone wrong.

It’s probably not an accident, in other words, that the thing that wrecked the UR Group was a rising spiral of clashing egos among the leading figures.  That’s what you’d expect to see happen with a group of people who are busy performing solar invocations without any other planetary influence to balance them.  Crowley, it bears noting, managed the same thing in a somewhat more diffuse and roundabout way, though here again an excess of solar symbolism seems to have played a role—one of the booby traps hidden in the standard Golden Dawn system is an excessive focus on the solar symbolism of Tiphareth, the sixth sphere of the Tree of Life, which again can lead to overinflated egos.

There are ways around that pitfall, in or out of the Golden Dawn system, but you have to know that the pitfall is there in order to avoid it. You also have to be willing to recognize a pitfall as a pitfall, and avoid the temptation to convince yourself that the dysfunctional emotional state you’ve gotten yourself into isn’t a sign of your own profound spiritual specialness. That’s not always easy—but then nobody who knew what they were talking about ever said that magic was easy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Three Lessons in Operative Magic

I really did intend to talk about something other than the vagaries of the Neopagan scene this month. The politics of contemporary Neopaganism deserved a passing glance, if only because those of us who are still practicing magic when the Neopagan wave flows back out to sea will have to deal with the social consequences of its vagaries for years to come, and there’s also a wry amusement to be gained by watching people insist rhat the best way to create a diverse and tolerant Paganism is to use bullying and ostracism to enforce rigid ideological uniformity on the Pagan scene. Still, such entertainments are peripheral to the purpose of this blog.

It so happens, though, that one of the other tempests currently raging in the Neopagan teapot offers something a good deal more relevant to the concerns of The Well of Galabes. Operative magic—the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, to use Dion Fortune’s definition—is one of the core disciplines of the occult philosophy I’m exploring here, and the tempest in question provides three really quite solid lessons in certain basic elements of operative magic. This is less of a compliment than it sounds, but we’ll get to that.

A little background might be helpful. Early last year, a Stanford undergraduate athlete named Brock Turner raped a woman outside of a college party. Unlike most rapists, he got caught and was brought to trial. He was convicted on three counts of sexual assault, but the judge—not coincidentally, perhaps, a Stanford graduate and former athlete—sentenced him to a much shorter sentence than usual. This was seen by a good many people, and not unreasonably, as a flagrant miscarriage of justice.

Enter certain members of the Pagan community. On June 8, an article on a popular Pagan website called for Pagans to join together en masse to cast hexes on Turner, the judge, and Turner’s father, who had made some gratuitously offensive public remarks in defense of his son. The idea seems to have been that since the justice system had failed to punish Turner, the Neopagan community would do it instead, by cursing him and the others involved with various colorful forms of misery and misfortune. 

Those of my readers who follow the Pagan blogosphere know how the resulting debates shaped up. It was all phrased in ethical terms; critics of the project insisted that those who participated in it would be punished by karma, the threefold law, or what have you, for engaging in what was, after all, magic meant to cause harm to others—that is to say, evil magic.  Proponents of the project insisted with equal heat that they didn’t believe in the things their critics spoke of, and that any action other than taking part in the hexing amounted to sitting by passively while Brock Turner got away with rape.

Are there important ethical issues in the situation? No doubt there are, but I don’t propose to get into them here. Nietzsche’s sly definition of ethics as the art of propping up inherited prejudices with bad logic has lost neither its sting nor its relevance since his time. In the Neopagan scene or out of it, furthermore, there’s no ethical consensus of the kind that would allow those issues to be settled in any meaningful sense, so ethical disputes inevitably come down to people with irreducibly different presuppositions talking past one another.

What hasn’t been addressed, as far as I know, are the issues of practical operative occultism that are raised by a project of the sort under discussion. That’s what I propose to talk about here.

It’s probably necessary to start off by noting that magic is not whatever you want it to be. It’s an ancient, subtle, and delicate art backed up by a body of knowledge—a science in the older sense of that word—that’s been gathered from something like three thousand years of practical experience in the Western world, and longer than that in the East. One consequence of this is that the laws of magic, like the laws of physics, don’t care whether you believe in them. In magic as in physics, some things work, some things don’t, and some things quite reliably blow up in your face and leave splinters in your flesh.  Learning which of these is which is an important part of a magical education—something that you can study with a teacher, in a magical lodge, or in that venerable institution, the School of Hard Knocks.

So let’s take a look at the campaign to hex Brock Turner from the point of view of operative magic, and see what we can learn.

The first task in any magical working is deciding exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish, and here a simple but immensely important rule holds sway: your working should focus on ends, not means. If the thing you want is X, in other words, your working will be most effective if you focus all your efforts on X itself, and let the magic sort out the intermediate steps that will get you X. 

This works because magic gains power from unity of focus. The more precisely you concentrate your efforts on a single goal, that is, the more likely you are to achieve it, while the more you diffuse your efforts in multiple directions, the more likely you are to fail to achieve any of them. If you concentrate everything you’ve got on the end, as a result, you’re much more likely to achieve it than if you divide your concentration between the end and the means you think you need to get the end.

What if you put all your concentration into the means? Embarrassingly often, this results in achieving the means, but in a way that doesn’t contribute toward achieving the end. There’s an old and famous story of a man who tried to become rich by doing a series of workings in which he visualized himself handling vast stacks of money. Shortly thereafter he lost his job, and the only job he could get was a position at a bank, where he labored eight hours a day at a modest wage counting vast stacks of other people’s money. He’d focused on the means—money in his hands—rather than the end—a lifestyle of wealth and financial comfort—and gotten the one and not the other.

Now of course the difficulty here, and it’s not a small one, is that in order to focus your working on ends rather than means, you have to know what you actually want. That’s not a straightforward thing, as human beings pretty much by definition are bundles of mixed motives and misunderstood desires. Half the reason that most people never manage to achieve happiness in life is that they never get around to figuring out what would make them happy, and so they keep on chasing the things they think they want rather than the thing that would actually satisfy their innermost needs. When dealing with a working like the Brock Turner hex, though, we can set aside these perplexities and simply ask: what is this working supposed to accomplish?

The purported intention offered by the proponents of the working is to bring justice to a situation in which it is clearly lacking. That’s a laudable intention, but something very curious happens when—as has already happened—someone asks, “Then why are you trying to cast a curse? Why not instead do a working focused explicitly on bringing justice to the situation?”  The standard response on the part of the proponents of the working is to dismiss this as a namby-pamby, milksop sort of half-measure, and to insist that only fullblown malevolent magic will do.  It’s an odd answer, all things considered, but it’s not new to this case; I’ve seen it in quite a few similar debates before now.

It’s not as though justice is actually a namby-pamby, milksop sort of thing, you know. Strict retributive justice is scary stuff. It’s the opposite of mercy; it means that what you do gets done to you, no wiggle room, no leniency, no second chances. In astrological symbolism, retributive justice is assigned to Saturn, the Greater Malefic, the cold and implacable planet of time, fate, and hard limits. In Pagan religious symbolism, justice corresponds to as tough and intransigent a set of deities as you’ll find anywhere. In the Cabala, justice is a correspondence of the terrible fifth sephirah Geburah, the sphere of severity and strict judgment. So...why isn’t this an adequate intention for the working?

I suspect the reason has to do with one of the unmentionable realities of contemporary American social life—the fact that so many Americans these days long desperately for a good excuse to hurt someone. Watch the way that Americans behave toward anyone they’ve decided it’s okay to hate, and you can count on seeing a really impressive degree of viciousness in action. This is why we fetishize vampires and zombies, why mass murderers occupy so large a place in our collective imagination, why policies that punish the poor for their own destitution enjoy bipartisan support, and so on.

The media circus around Brock Turner’s sentencing has brought this same reaction down on him. The people who are calling for malevolent magic to be flung at him clearly don’t want justice, since they’ve rejected the concept as an explicit goal for their magic, and as far as I’ve seen, they show only the most pro forma concern for the woman he raped—where are the mass workings to bring her healing and justice?  Rather, they want to take part in the magical equivalent of the kind of Old West lynch mob that used to haul unpopular felons out of jail, tie rope around their feet, drag them behind galloping horses over rough ground for ten miles or so, and then splash kerosene onto what was left and set it on fire.

Mixed motives, for reasons discussed earlier, are a hindrance to effective magic. If you want to bring justice into a situation, you need to direct your magical efforts toward justice. If you want to drop the facade of bland plastic niceness that governs most social interactions in America, on the other hand, and wallow in the delights of beating and bullying someone, then it’s probably a good idea to admit that to yourself and drop the pretense that justice has anything to do with the matter.

It’s at this point, though, that we move to the second lesson that can be drawn from the campaign to hex Brock Turner. Another important rule of magic is generally called the law of repercussion, though I prefer to call it the Raspberry Jam Principle. Just as you can’t spread raspberry jam on a slice of bread without getting at least a little of it on your own fingers, that is, you can’t work with magical forces without those forces having some effect on you.

I probably need to note again that this is not a matter of ethics, any more than it’s an ethical judgment to point out that drinking drain cleaner is bad for your digestion. The law of repercussion doesn’t mean that somebody up in the clouds is passing judgment on you; it’s as impersonal, automatic, and pitiless as gravity. Nor, by the way, do you have to believe in it for it to affect you; the laws of magic, like the laws of physics, don’t care if you believe in them or not. The reason this principle works is simply that your own mind and body are the vehicles for the influences you summon and direct in magic. Whatever influences you bring into manifestation in your magical work will thus set corresponding patterns going in you, which will then work outwards into your life: as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.

It’s only fair to note that I’ve met a certain number of operative mages who insist that this isn’t the case and that they can do whatever they want without any risk from repercussion. Their lives are smoking craters. I’ve watched some of them stumble for years from one miserable mess to another, with buckets of bad luck far beyond the normal measure landing on their heads over and over again. Ironically, if you suggest to them that maybe the cascading miseries of their lives might be the normal working out of well-known magical principles, you can expect to field an angry insistence that it just ain’t so.

I also know plenty of operative mages whose lives are, by and large, happy and successful. They have prosperous careers, enjoy generally good health, have little trouble maintaining whatever kind of relationships they prefer, and so on. All of them, without exception, pay careful attention to the law of repercussion in their magical work. They aren’t necessarily paragons of virtue in any other sense, but they know that the Raspberry Jam Principle has its flipside, which is that you can improve your own life substantially by making a habit of directing influences of healing and benediction toward other people. Namby-pamby? Call it what you like, it works.

You’ll notice I haven’t used words like “shouldn’t” in this discussion, and that’s deliberate. Once again, we’re not talking about ethics. If you like lots of suffering in your life—some people apparently do—you now know a very good way to get it.  What’s more, if you want to hurt someone magically, and don’t mind taking the hit from the inevitable repercussion, then I’m not going to tell you not to. One very effective way to work malevolent magic, in fact, is to resolve firmly that what you’re about to do is so important that you’re perfectly willing to embrace whatever the repercussions happen to be—though if you do that, it’s crucial to stick with it when the ugly stuff starts to happen. If you start whining at that point, it’s just going to mess up the working.

It’s probably also worth noting here that a working for retributive justice also involves repercussion. If you’re behaving unjustly in your life—and which of us isn’t?—you’re going to get it in the neck as the energies of retributive justice take shape in your own body and mind, and seek the nearest available outlet in your life. One proven way around this effect is to choose some situation in which you’re behaving unjustly and, as soon as you’ve done the working, do whatever you have to do to make it right. That provides a channel through which the influence can earth out, and thus gives you some control over the shape of the repercussion. On the other hand, you could choose instead to do a working to bring healing and restorative justice to the woman Brock Turner raped, in which case the repercussion is going to be to your benefit.

So should you run right out and post something on Faceplant or your favorite Pagan networking site trying to organize a group working along the lines just suggested?  At this point we move to the third lesson that can be drawn from the campaign to hex Brock Turner.

Eliphas Levi, whose knowledge of older magical traditions was considerably more extensive and subtle than that of many later mages, wrote that four virtues are paramount in magic:  to know, to will, to dare, and to be silent. (One of my teachers used to rephrase this in his inimitable style:  “to know, to will, to dare, and to shut the f*** up.”) That last virtue is much more important than it looks. The more you talk about the workings you’re doing, the less power they have: that’s a reliable principle of magic, and once again, you don’t have to believe in it to be affected by it.

The same thing, interestingly enough, affects many other kinds of creative activity. Most writers learn early on in their careers, for example, that talking about a writing project is a great way to bleed the creative energy right out of it. Still, with magic, and especially with magic in the age of the internet, there’s another issue of equal importance, which is that not everyone who reads your Faceplant post will necessarily share your goals and support your magical intentions.

A few years back, for example, friends of the Druid leader Isaac Bonewits organized an internet spell to try to save his life when he was dying of cancer. For a while there, just about every internet forum frequented by Druids had posts splashed all over it asking people to do workings that made use of a typically clunky ditty:  “Isaac’s tumor goes away, thirty more years with Phae.” (The latter reference was to his wife Phaedra.) Despite the fact that some thousands of people participated in it, the working failed, and Bonewits passed away a short time later.

I’ve long suspected that there was a simple if brutal reason behind that failure. Bonewits was not an uncontroversial figure. He made plenty of enemies—it might even be fair to say that he delighted in making them—and some of those enmities, to judge from conversations I heard at a variety of Pagan venues over the years, ran very, very deep. If some of the many people who disliked Bonewits wanted to, they could quite easily have done workings of their own, chanting a ditty of their own on the order of “Tumor, tumor, grow and spread, thirty days and Isaac’s dead,” or what have you. Since he was already gravely ill, they wouldn’t have have to carry the weight of a full-blown death spell; all they had to do was interfere with the working that was being done to save his life—and interfering with a magical working is fairly easy if you know the details of the working in advance.

The attempt to hex Brock Turner runs exactly the same risk. I’m not sure how many of my readers are aware of this, for example, but there’s an organized movement of neo-Nazi magical lodges, the so-called darkside lodges, scattered over various corners of the Western world. (Those who are interested in the grubby details can find them in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s excellent book Black Sun.) I have no contact with members of those lodges, nor have I the least interest in having any; thus I can’t be sure of their opinions on the subject, but on first principles I’d tend to suspect that they’d favor Brock Turner’s side of the case over that of the woman he raped.

Thus it’s quite possible that at this point, every detail of the proposed hexing campaign is now being discussed in the private forums that neo-Nazi occultists frequent. It’s equally possible that one or more darkside lodges are already planning or performing ritual workings to interfere with the hexing—again, this isn’t hard once you know the details of the working you want to counter. The internet is not a private space, it bears remembering, and it’s unwise in the extreme to assume that the things you post there will only reach people who agree with you.

To sum up, then, if you’re going to practice magic, it’s a good idea to be honest with yourself about what exactly you want to accomplish, and then aim for your actual goals rather than some intermediate step that you think will get you there. It’s a good idea to keep the Raspberry Jam Principle in mind, and work with magical influences whose repercussions you’re willing to tolerate in your life. It’s also a good idea not to talk about your magical workings, partly to keep from diffusing your intent and partly to keep those who might not sympathize with your goals from messing with your workings. Those are three very solid lessons to take from the situation here anatomized—and if those of my readers who happen to be operative mages choose to put those lessons to use in performing workings of healing and restorative justice for the benefit of the woman Brock Turner raped, and for all victims of sexual assault, that strikes me as a very, very good thing indeed.

On an unrelated note, I'm currently in need of decent quality scans, in JPEG format, of the artwork from Eliphas Levi's book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, usually mistitled Transcendental Magic in its English translation). If you have access to these, please put through a comment headed "not for posting" with your email address and other details. Many thanks!