Perspiration vs. Inspiration in Learning Magic

These ideas arose as part of a discussion on Studio Arcanis regarding the question, “What is more important—the result or the ritual itself?”  As in many of our discussions, the conversation brought up the problem of whether magical technique or raw magical ability are more important and how to tell.  Today’s magical comment is taken from one of my responses to that.

We can’t know in any reliable way where the line between technique and talent lies in anyone. You can train people in a technique, but you can’t train people to be gifted. Some people are better technicians. Others are immensely gifted. Some people who are immensely gifted work on technique to become truly amazing well-rounded practitioners. Others, not having been born with much, do the “90% perspiration / 10% inspiration” rule of success and develop what they can—another way to be great.

I’ve taught magic to people and sometimes I get an idea of how an individual is balanced between technique / gift just by seeing what they do with my suggestions. The gifted person just has to hear you suggest a thing and her mind is already working on it. Sometimes I don’t even need to suggest it! I just say, “What are we working on now?” and that person will lay out an intense range of experience and progress for me. 

For example, I might suggest that she start to develop her knowledge of a spirit through lucid dreaming (“aka “Dreaming True”). When she talks to me next, she’ll have successfully done it and surpassed that lesson. She’ll be on to something new, challenging me to catch up to her. By contrast, the good technical student may have to work hard at developing the lucid dreaming capacity because she’s not a natural, but she’ll “lock on” to the assignment and scrupulously document all of her efforts, giving me a kind of journal / timeline at the end that shows all the adjustments she made in order to complete the work. Both ways are legitimate and powerful.

These are stereotypes, but my point is simple: it’s not just grimoires; it’s not any particular way forward; it’s how people do the best with what they’ve got that makes them competent magical workers. It’s hard for us (and impossible for non-magical teachers) to see someone’s true potential. But you can get an idea of their strengths and weaknesses over time. 

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The Ordeal of Synthesis in Magical Systems

The greatest obstacle to growth is fear.  This is easy to accept in the abstract, less so in one’s personal life.  But as a way to briefly discuss how magical practices change in the historical macrocosm as well as every person’s microcosm, I need to make fear and growth stand beside each other.  I want to suggest how the former tries to obstruct the latter for reasons that have nothing to do with magic as a practice or a way of life and everything to do with cultural assumptions and ignorance.

In order to do this, I need to talk about something called “paradigm shift” and how it seems to work relative to  branding, trendiness, lingering religious assumptions, and spiritual uncertainty in magical thought.  This sounds complex on the surface, but it actually comes down to a few simple concepts that can be hard to spot at first.  However, like a formula plot in a Hollywood movie, once you recognize the pattern, you will always see it.  This isn’t very romantic or exciting, but it’s useful if we want to be better magicians and witches.

“Paradigm shift” is a term created by science historian, Thomas Kuhn, whose Structure of Scientific Revolutions examines the way “an individual or society’s view of how things work” changes.  It’s an excellent book / concept and very useful to every field of knowledge because it looks at how trends and assumptions affect the way people form a sense of what is real and true.  For example, before Joseph Lister applied germ theory to sanitation in medical settings, such a thing sounded like crazy talk to the learned doctors of the 19thcentury.  Now we use antiseptics to save lives.  This is paradigm shift—when the established way of determining what is true (the existing paradigm) gets overturned (shifts) and the authorities accept a new vision.  

Not surprisingly, paradigm shift also happens in the occult.  In his Conjure Codex I essay, “Old Wizard,” Jake Stratton-Kent writes:

In these days of niche markets, modern occultism is prone to dividing the magic of the past into brands. Drawing links between magical approaches in different periods and cultures can draw suspicion where none is necessarily deservedThe idea that some old bloke might be right, and the mass produced manuals might be wrong can take a long time to arise. Such prejudice is especially likely when he insists on drawing parallels, say, between magical papyri and later grimoires which are considered different brands – even though the papyri were written in the same language as that in which the word goetia first occurred. Such fashion-driven suspicion is not soothed when I go on to compare both with New World magical traditions.  (my emphasis, 13)

In this sense, those from a strictly exclusive ATR magical-religious system, for example, might be highly suspicious and critical of a western magician claiming access to those spirits via grimoire evocation methods.  And a traditionalist grimoire magician might be highly suspicious and critical of a mediumistic new age way of contacting spirits using crystals and binaural brainwave entrainment. These all represent traditions (paradigms) through which their practitioners construct a sense of what is true and false, real and unreal in their magical experiences.

Branding is no doubt to blame for much of this.  As in all publishing, the branding and marketing of occult texts depends on thinking in exclusive categories, in what Stratton-Kent calls “niche markets.” Say you’re a grimoire magician.  As such, you may want to express your magic in terms of that brand identity.  You might not even be conscious of this.  But if your bookshelf has a plethora of grimoires, ceremonial magical texts, bits about Crowley and Mathers, and very little on ATR religions, folk magic of the Americas, or Asian magical-religious practices, you have likely been channeled into certain types of marketing.

The good news is that paradigms can and eventually will shift.  As Stratton-Kent points out, “[W]ith practice [in evocation], spirits develop a well-rounded character, and an increased possibility of ongoing relationships with spirits rapidly develops from this. If this is reminiscent of Voodoo religion, that is all to the good” (14).  In other words, the more you work with a particular system or paradigm, the more it will connect you to other systems or paradigms, precipitating a shift or synthesis in your thinking.  But not everyone is experienced enough or determined enough or talented enough to reach this point.  In fact, some of the loudest voices in the occult often come from the most limited, scared practitioners.

Again, branding comes into play.  People heavily invested in a particular system or religion, especially those who make some sort of income off being a magical authority, want to protect their brand at all costs. You see this a lot in the ATR and conjure communities where being the neighborhood rootdoctor or card reader is a full-time job—so much that trashing one’s competition seems to be a standard part of the brand identity.  But boasting and arrogance seem to exist in every field where a large part of it is subjective.  This is true in the arts, in politics, in sports—anywhere a hard-edged objective standard for quality doesn’t exist.  

So I can hang my shingle out as a conjure practitioner and spirit evoker. And even if I have a magical lineage (which I do have and which proves nothing, by the way), I might still feel insecure that some kid down the block with tarot deck and a candle is going to steal my clients away from me.  Luckily, for my own sense of sanity, I have a regular job which makes this sort of paranoia and uncertainty unnecessary in my life.  But go on social media or discussion forums (even advanced forums like Studio Arcaniswhere I moderate) and you’ll see a lot of empty trash talking and boasting by people trying to say, my magic is deeper, better, older, more authentic than yours and if you claim to know what I know (and don’t look like me, follow me in some way, or come from my unique ancestry), you are deluded and / or fake. Such talk comes with the territory for better or worse.

Unfortunately for the poseurs and the gatekeepers, you can’t stop change with fear and braggadocio.  You can’t stand in the way of paradigm shift.  Owen Davies’ Grimoires: a History of Magical Books is all about this.  He notes that “The history of grimoires, as told in these pages, is not only about the significance of the book in human intellectual development, but also about the desire for knowledge and the enduring impulse to restrict and control it” (278).  Someone will always be suspicious (and ultimately afraid) of anything that departs from the comfort and security of their current “traditional” paradigm.  Or, as Stratton-Kent puts it:

From my point of view, approaches to goetia that remain – rather than begin – “by the book” become stale and clichéd. Reliance on the book once some experience with it has been gained is neither satisfying nor convincing. Old wizards like myself, who hail from a time before magic became commercially driven, are prone to more experimental approaches – departing from the more instantly recognisable avenues. As time goes on it becomes apparent that some of these departures make sense of older traditions – and others not so old – whose relationship with goetia is at first less than obvious.  (12)

Therefore, whenever you see someone vehemently gatekeeping, either along the lines of race / ethnicity (white people can’t do non-white spirituality), initiation (my magical society holds the keys to immortal truth and only imparts them via super-secret initiations), lineage (I come from 15 generations of witches back through the Burning Times), or divine revelation (the Flying Spaghetti Monster came to me in a dream and unless you had that same experience, you’re not a real practitioner), you need to also recognize their fear.  They are desperately trying to control knowledge, to accumulate as much power as possible by preventing paradigm shift.  And while that is understandable, it is also futile and ignorant.

We can do old-system magic and we should.  But one thing we can’t do is insist on “purity” in anything.  We can’t disregard what magical thinkers and practitioners have discovered and said since the era in which we locate the “real authentic magic.”  Instead, we have to look at it as a process of growth and evolution in which old systems and practices cycle through different periods and cultures, taking on new ideas, and absorbing new perspectives.  The gatekeepers will fade into history.  The people forging new syntheses and drawing new connections will be remembered as visionaries.  So it is with all human knowledge.