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.