Magic: a Definition in Progress

Here’s a new definition for magic that I’ve been refining.  I think there’s more to it, but I’m trying to approach this in a thoughtful, methodical way.  The other day, I brought it up in a talk with a client and it’s still tapping me on the shoulder, asking to be born.  So, tentatively, I’ll let it be what it is at the moment: Magic is the subtle art of taking responsibility for yourself on all levels: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in terms of right perception, right action, right feeling, and right knowing—in order to advance your development and well-being in a way that is in harmony with the flow of all things.  This definition intrigues me in a number of ways.  For now, I’ll just put it here and continue thinking about it.

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Initiation, Magical Teachers, and Personal Accountability

I’ve written before about the revised Rosicrucian Code of Life and how appealing those ideals can be, especially this passage: “Never cause anyone to believe that members of the Order are sages who are in full possession of the Truth. To those who may ask, present yourself as a philosophical person who is seeking Wisdom. Never pretend you are a Rose-Croix, but say you are a perfecting Rosicrucian.” 

I’ve also noted Paul Foster Case’s idea that to be a “Rosicrucian” is to accept a way of relating ethically to the world; it is not primarily an outer affiliation with a mystical order.  It is an inner state of being and consciousness.  This makes it tantamount to a philosophical, initiatory decision on a personal level, which is where all magic begins and ultimately ends.  There are many esoteric groups in the world, several of which currently bear the label, “rosicrucian,” but there is only one Self.  There is only one workshop in which the individual can dedicate and rededicate him- or herself to the Great Work.

With this in mind, I believe that if we are seeking magical initiation (i.e. “a way to begin”), our first and most reliable teacher is our “holy daimon” or “holy guardian angel”—the part of us that exists beyond the vagaries of form and time.  Attaining the “knowledge and conversation” of this teacher can become a spiritual quest in itself or it can amount to a surprisingly quiet revelation: that we are not “in full possession of the Truth,” but that we are always “perfecting” towards a more complete realization of it.  And part of us, the part that is god, is already there, unfolding its mystery for us as we progress.

In The Secrets of High Magick, Francis Melville notes that “One of the most significant experiences on this path is known as the ‘Attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.’  This is a transformational encounter with your inner master, higher self, or guardian angel—the Inner Divinity within all things.”  As far as concise definitions for the K & C of the HGA are concerned, this one is good because it ends on the idea that divinity cannot be partitioned or objectified.  It is “within all things,” including you and me. 

Perhaps this is the what Trithemius refers to when he asks, “Is it not true that all things flow from one thing, from the goodness of the One, and that whatever is joined to Unity cannot be diverse, but rather fructifies by means of the simplicity and adaptability of the One?”  According to this, magic, both low and high, would be just as much an articulation of the one thing as anything else under the sun.  As most translations of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes put it, “What is above is like what is below, and what is below is like that which is above. To make the miracle of the one thing.”  Realizing this “miracle” on the deepest level is why were are here.

It is also the reason we cannot offer our initiation for another.  In other words, if we are magical teachers (as we most surely are), all we can do is open a space for the student to experience initiation.  In the neophyte ritual of the Golden Dawn, the Hierophant accepts the individual into the Order by saying, “Child of Earth, long hast thou dwelt in darkness. Quit the night and seek the day.”  Note the emphasis on personal volition in this language.  This is not a Marvel Comics Dr. Strange initiation where the master knocks you upside the head and grants you cosmic perception (as fun as that would be).  It’s an act of accepting accountability for one’s own development.

In this sense, teachers are wonderful but they are primarily facilitators.  We don’t have to wait for someone’s permission to accept this magical burden or this personal quest.  We can do it right where we are, right now.  It is completely up to us.  The thing we’re all looking for waits at the top of the mountain.  Many paths go up and they all terminate at the same point, the same existential realization, the same knowledge and conversation of and with the Self.  This is true no matter whether we are saying a simple child’s prayer, working a bit of hoodoo, performing a lodge ritual to attain a deeper level of gnosis, or rising on the planes.  The mountain remains.  And if we keep at it, we ascend.

Do Your Best

I have a neighbor who looks like the separated-at-birth twin of Slavoj Žižek.  Rain or shine, Monday morning or Friday evening, he looks utterly dismayed at the stupidity of existence.  Perhaps there is some value in that perspective.  But, to me, he just seems consistently miserable.  I passed him this morning on my way to the market and would have said hello if he’d looked up.  He didn’t.  There were dark and gloomy things to entertain on this bright Saturday morning in Southern England.


Ah, I thought, maybe next time.  Maybe, at some vague juncture in the future when things are somehow better than they are right now (and it is possible for him to accurately determine this), he will smile. 

He’s a pretty good neighbor because I never see him.  But, when I do, I’m reminded of that (overused) line from Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”  He’s a university professor, lives in a very nice house, has a vivacious young French wife and two bright and healthy daughters.  And still: mordred in the black pit of despair every time I see him.  Well, maybe that’s just his style.

Sometimes, I wonder if his face is merely fixed that way, not unlike Grumpy, everyone’s favorite obsolete meme-cat.

This is actually Grumpy Cat smiling.  And I think we all know people like this.  They’re never happy unless they’re miserable, at least on the outside.  Many such people have a melancholy disposition even in the best of times.  These are the most difficult people to help.  They turn to magic as a solution when everything else has failed because they don’t really believe, deep down, that anything can make them satisfied or happy.   So why not something totally unreal and fake like magic?  It makes no sense when you think about it.  Of course, extremely depressed people are not expected to make sense.

As I walked to the market, my encounter with Clone Žižek got me thinking about conjure and about how aggrieved certain clients are when they contact me, how convinced they are that nothing will be able to fix their complex and insurmountable problems.  They want to believe in a spiritual solution.  But, really, they think they’re doomed.

Therefore, the first step when they contact me is to explore the possibility that other outcomes exist.  I do a short tarot reading, write up my insights and recommendations, then we talk about it.  Usually, that gets to the heart of the problem (which may be entirely different than what the client thinks he or she needs at first).  And if the cards show that work is indicated, I’ll lay out a range of possible solutions, send the client an invoice, set up a timeline and, as soon as payment is received, we’ll get moving in the right direction.

Meanwhile, I usually give out a lot of free folk magic advice on things the client can do to help him- or herself in little ways.  Folk magic can be immensely useful psychologically (decreasing lust of result, attaining necessary inner calm) and practically (putting yourself, your magical intentions, and the natural world in dynamic harmony). 

But there’s an even deeper piece of advice that I can give you right here.  It comes from one of my 7 Practices, common sense ideas I like on how to lead a tranquil satisfied life: “Acceptance.  I take everything life offers and use it to become smarter, stronger, and more joyful.  This may at times be difficult but, when it is possible, it is the best course of action.”

Ah-so,  you may be thinking, wisdom of the ancients!  A Hare Krishna gave me a free pamphlet on the street corner last week that said the same thing.  And I will agree with you that this principle is neither surprising nor original.  But it’s perhaps more immediately useful than 100 spell books on how to get paid and laid.  If used properly, it is a more powerful formula than any work of operative magic because it constitutes life-changing initiatory magic—as in, you are initiating (beginning) yourself in a new way.  You’re experiencing a new beginning.  And there is no separation between that magical intention and the target (you).  All it takes is desire and mindfulness.  

People think acceptance means making the best of things as they are.  Wrong.  How do you feel when someone says, “Just make the best of it.”  Do you feel good?  I’m willing to bet that you feel worse and probably a bit angry.  Being put in a position where you have to make the best of a bad situation or a problem feels like being trapped, admitting there is nothing to be done, and the problem is never going to change.  It is inherently defeatist and puts you back in Clone Žižek Land where the sky is always falling and everything is always horrible.

Instead, you initiate a new course of action-experience-being by “doing your best.”  Do you see the subtle difference?  “Making the best of what is” is not the same thing as “doing your best”—which has less to do with “what is” and more to do with “what you want it to be.”  “Doing your best” says that maybe you won’t be able to fix the whole thing.  Then again, maybe you will.  You have agency in the situation.  You are not being controlled by all-powerful forces taking away your options.

It goes without saying that you want to do your best in every problematic situation because every situation is problematic, at least in some small way.  Nothing is perfect and if we look hard enough through our grumpy glasses, we’ll see the inevitable defects.  Conversely, even in the worst situations, there are positive transformative elements.  I’m reminded of Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, where he describes his school of psychotherapy (logotherapy) as a method that “focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning.  According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”

With this in mind, the “acceptance” I’m talking about here is dynamic rather than static.  It’s doing rather than making the best of it.  It’s an active search for something that means more.  And if practiced sincerely and mindfully in daily life, it is a profound form of Greater Initiatory Magic—magic that leads to powerful self-realization and happiness.

The best way I know to practice “doing your best” comes from the modern Stoic philosopher, Dr. William B. Irvine, in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joywhere he talks about setting internal rather than external goals:

I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself.  In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals.  Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control).  By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best.  His tranquility will not be disrupted

. . . . . 

Although they value tranquility, [Stoics] feel duty-bound to be active participants in the society in which they live.  But such participation clearly puts their tranquility in jeopardy.  One suspects, for example, that Cato would have enjoyed a far more tranquil life if he did not feel compelled to fight the rise to power of Julius Caesar— if he instead had spent his days, say, in a library, reading the Stoics.  I would like to suggest, though, that Cato and the other Stoics found a way to retain their tranquility despite their involvement with the world around them: They internalized their goals.  Their goal was not to change the world, but to do their best to bring about certain changes.  Even if their efforts proved to be ineffectual, they could nevertheless rest easy knowing that they had accomplished their goal: They had done what they could do.

In other words, by looking inwards and focusing on internal goals, which is to say, personally meaningful things, one does one’s best.  This is the way to initiate a new way of life.  It’s a reset button for bad situations.  And it works.  It’s not simply trying to use a New Age affirmation to convince oneself of something that isn’t the case in reality.  It’s not just “the power of positive thinking.”  It’s more like creating a new reality for yourself, in yourself, through an active search for meaning.

Just remember: don’t make the best of it.  Do your best.  And you will avoid the fate of Grumpy Cat.

You Are Everything, which is to say, One Thing

I woke up this morning with an insight.  I was half-awake, thinking about how knowledge cannot be destroyed, how it can only be temporarily obscured and will resurface in some other time or place.  And I realized that everything I have done in my life points to the same Self trying to express its truth through symbols.  All my professional and spiritual activities amount to different modes of expressing One Thing: the space of consciousness (conscious awareness) in me / everything and its universal transcendent energy.  Various practices and fields can be destroyed in oneself and in the world but they will reemerge because one cannot destroy their source.

This is why / how I have always perceived the goddess as an avatar of this—consciousness takes many forms in many symbolic patterns (as anything phenomenal that can be perceived), including deities, spirits, and human beings with all their layers and facets.  If we strip away the image of the body and that of the mind, we’re left with an image of the psyche (holy guardian angel / higher self).  If we strip away even the image of the psyche, we’re left with a space of awareness that can be mapped, expressed symbolically, in any myriad of ways.

Following from this, I also saw how everything I’ve done in my life (including what I’ve taught others) has not been relegated to the mind, but has been done in search of inspiration, which I now see as another form of revelation / expression of that One Thing.  

All practices, perceptions, and beliefs, from the most quotidian to the most esoteric, are encompassed by conscious awareness and therefore point to the singularity of the One Thing.  Since there is never a discrete moment when we “get it done,” since we are always engaged in the process of becoming (in the process of apprehending our consciousness, our being, in greater and clearer detail), nothing is wasted, nothing is lost, and it is impossible to squander one’s time on earth.  

As long as there will be human experience, human beings will attempt to make sense of it on some level, which inherently reveals and expresses the eternal presence of that One Thing.  We don’t have to struggle to attain the knowledge and conversation of this conscious awareness because IT IS US.  There is no way we can lose it; we are synonymous with it on all levels at all times (even the mind is a servant of consciousness, just as Satan is said to be the servant of God or pain the servant of wisdom).  We might refer to people who are overtly trying to apprehend their consciousness as “awake” while others are “asleep,” but this is just a convenient way of describing a difference in intensity.  Whether the paths to self-realization are long or short, slow or fast, they all head in the same direction.

Then what remains to be done once we understand this?  Nothing has to be done.  Once we realize we are in the process of becoming aware of our essential awareness, we are free to take life as it comes.  Nothing is foreign to us.  Nothing is lost or gained.  There are only different expressions, ideas, symbols, forms that arise and pass away.  We don’t get excessively involved with any particular form because we understand that these are transitory expressions of something eternal and that “we” are transitory expressions as well.  Ultimately, there is no “we.”  There is just “I AM.”

The One Thing perpetually arranges and rearranges itself in different forms and we need to respond to those forms—my roof is leaking, so I have to fix it / I have a job interview, so I have to iron my shirt.  But we do so with a sense of inner serenity, not identifying very closely with any particular form, because we apprehend the movement of the whole.  

This is the inner meaning of Hexagram 54, Kuei Mei, in the I-Ching:

[T]he superior man/ Understands the transitory/ In the light of the eternity of the end. . . .  If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine.  If, on the other hand, a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.”  

Here, “the end” represents the universal transcendent One Thing, the ultimate reality.  If we understand that all forms arising from it are transitory, we “succeed in avoiding the reefs” of the mind that would otherwise torment us. 

Beyond the Veil

Here is a magical secret: when the Veil of the Mysteries is parted, there is nothing but the self.  This means that when we reach a point in our development where we can see beyond the surfaces of things—when we can see things as they truly are—we find we have created the entire world.  The world is formed for each person in that person’s image.

And so the old expression, “You create your own reality,” returns on a new level.  It’s not just the Law of Attraction or a kind of subjective idealism.  The world, being energy, being a verb (that our language and thinking frames as a noun), moves according to our attention and intention.

A skeptic might object: “Step out in front of a moving bus and see if you created that bus or not.”  But the world of the senses moves and mutates just as easily as thought: you thought that was a city bus, but it was a flower truck.  You thought that was a flower truck, but it’s actually a man on a bicycle.  You thought that was a man on a bicycle, but it was just the wind.  We cannot look to our senses to prove that a reality exists apart from our minds.

Descartes might suggest, “I think, therefore I am.”  I can’t prove anything other than that I’m having a thought.  To this, the adept responds, sure.  What is a thought?  A thought is a momentary reflection of the self that arises and passes away.  No thought can be held for long.  And who or what is the self that has this thought?  We go looking for this self and find a maze of endless images, which are just more thoughts.

In the end, we see past the illusory “world,” past the illusory masks that we used to think of as “myself,” past all thought.  And we find that the true self is nothing but an empty space of awareness that accepts all perceptions equally and lets them go like smoke on the wind.

“For behold, I have been with thee from the beginning; and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.” — The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente