Probably, long-time readers know that I’m a fan of magic — not the fireball-throwing kind of my days playing Dungeons and Dragons back in fifth and sixth grade, but the more-esoteric, more consciousness-exploring forms of it, which involve learning a number of skills and talents from cryptography and artistic skill to careful reading and meditation. The second kind of magic, the kind that doesn’t involve violating the laws of physics with wild abandon, is considerably more boring than the first kind, but it still has its uses.
Rare are the people with whom I get to discuss this face-to-face. Still, I’ve had the good fortune to have that conversation several times in the last few weeks, with surprisingly good results. Inviting a magician to talk about magic is in fact an invitation to let magic into your life in unexpected ways, though — because magic is in part about changing consciousness, and one of the ways that consciousness gets changed is through storytelling. Magicians are frequently good storytellers: people whose skill at telling stories allows them to change your mindset around all kinds of issues.
All of the stories that I told this week — to people who invited me to talk about magic — involved discussions about the spirit world. It’s a tempting thing to assume that all of your conversations with the spirit world are taking place within your own materialist, rationalist head. The Faerie, in one sense, could be understood to be the queer (and I don’t use that word lightly, in Pride month) parts of your own brain that think about fashion, glamour, beauty, elegance, agility, flexibility, felicity and serendipity. The Ancestors could be assumed to be the tradition-bound parts of your own brain, speaking to you from out of the mouths of the recently deceased and the most ancient parts of your familial lineage. The Nature Spirits (those genii loci), and the Elemental Spirits, or even the Astrological Spirits of the planets, might be mistaken for the parts of your brain that see significance in the flight of a hawk or the play between fire and water or the recognition that a certain bright star is Venus. It’s easy to pretend (and many of us do) that these voices are simply aspects of our own mind.
Conversely, we could treat them as non-human (Gordon prefers the term more than human) beings that have some level of consciousness in the real world. A rock is always a rock, for example; a pen is always a pen. These things don’t always have stories or meaning of their own, or consciousness that is capable of speaking back to us. But a rock that was given to us by our dead grandmother before she passed, which happens to be a quartz crystal, which she told us she’d use to communicate with us after she died… that rock is invested with story. It has a certain limited consciousness, and it’s empowered as a tool to communicate with a certain particular spirit. Maybe it’s all in our heads — and maybe it’s story that makes things more real than just what our imaginations imagine.
Thinking in a materialist mindset — that we humans are conscious solely as an accident of atoms and molecules, and that nothing else is conscious at any level — is a hard habit to break. Even now after nearly twenty years of deliberate practice, I find that some corners of my mind have difficulty breaking free of that bit of self-reporting. It tends to rise within me at the oddest times, often as a bursting forth from a deep emotional wellspring. It takes a lot of effort to learn how to tell a new story, a story that involves recognizing consciousness in all things — the plants in my garden, the rocks that came here to my yard with a glacier 20,000 years ago, the fabric I bought last week that wants to be a dice bag, the books that I referenced four times in my conversations this week.
Imagination is surely the place where that story begins. At first, you engage in practice exercises that are intended to help you improve the quality of your memory, and the quality of your visualized experiences. It’s far easier for the spirit world to communicate with you if you have cultivated the faculties of the mental eye, to ‘see’ a real or fictitious place with your mind’s eye, to be able to call up that scene, and to place a spirit that you believe to be present, into that scene. Then that being can speak with you about its history and origins, its goals, its plans for the future. Even here, a rock is often just a rock — although it tells you of its origins on the Canadian Shield, and its long slow journey in a river of ice to its resting place beside the sugar maple tree in the garden, it remembers little of the human who plucked it from one part of the yard, and moved it to its present position. It did not come here by accident, but neither did it arrive here by its own power.
Circumspection is another aspect of this process of learning to tell another story besides materialism. Initially, as magic suffuses more and more of your life, there’s a desire to shout that knowledge from the rooftops. It’s rarely a good idea, but the desire wells up inside you nonetheless. Part of the reason for that desire is that you find a series of strategies or tactics — techniques may really be the best word — that work to do a variety of remarkable things: alleviate depression, manage learning processes, discover new cultural or technological insights, cultivate skills, or connect with synchronicity at a new level
Events sometimes overtake you as you learn more about magic. You skip divination exercises for a few days, and things happen that you would have tried to prevent had you known about them ahead of time — but you didn’t know, so you couldn’t act. And yet, it may be that your efforts to learn enchantment or future-enhancement through spell craft caused you to skip your divinations that day so that unlikely events could come to pass. Those events themselves open the door to new possibilities, allowing future circumstances to unfold in a way that is quite favorable to you. Yet had you seen them from the point of view you had before the change, you would have thought them undesirable, and so you would have worked to prevent them.
Elaborate justifications of these sorts of circumstances are common. It is important to be rigorous. At the same time, the magical practitioner must also recognize that serendipity and synchronicity play an important role in knowing whether a given magical operation has worked. Results that are too far removed from the magical operation in time are to be discounted as less important; more immediate results are to be celebrated — but perhaps privately, since to non-magicians, real-world effects seem like mundane coincidence.
Vacations from the work are not ideal. It’s sometimes the case that a spell can be cast and then forgotten; but it is also the case in magic that, just as in business, there are projects and there is overhead. Projects sometimes take fifteen minutes, and a fifteen minute spell can be good for a quick fix or two; but generous results require additional time invested. Just as a dam or a power plant is not built in a day, so is it necessary to invest time into a working over a period of days or weeks or months or years. And then there is also overhead — the cost that must be continually invested into your practice in order to get better at the work incrementally. It is possible to cast no spells and do no magic at all, provided that the necessary time has been invested in being magic rather than doing magic.
Early efforts are rewarded with renewed attention and clarity of thought. Then it is not uncommon for boredom to set in. A growing mindfulness approaches each new magical effort — is this thing worth the time or energy to accomplish? Should I put my time and dedicate my resources into this particular project? Can it be accomplished by mundane methods? T.S. Eliot, in Murder in the Cathedral, noted that ambition is the fruit of the awareness of limitation — when we become conscious that all things are not possible, we focus and rededicate our efforts.
Reverie or dreams sometimes become mournful moments. We imagine greater things for ourselves than destiny can truly achieve. At first we envision elaborate careers for ourselves, filled with honors and dignities, a place at the high table, a position of public trust, a leadership office, a celebration of our life and work. Then the critics come — and the critics offer no real laurels, only dismay that our work is not yet at its pinnacle, or the eye-roll at the forlorn hope that our work will never reach its peak — not because of its current excellence, but its excrescence: a destiny for the abyss seems its lot.
Yearning for a place in the canon of superiority is a fond wish of many a writer, a poet, a painter, a scientist, a magician. In truth, few of us achieve so exalted a state, and fewer still in the hours of their lives. Some few achieve that state without deserving it; many more are deserving of that fate and never reach it. Production of effort toward the work that matters is more vital than critique of the work of others. Therefore use time with a lightened purpose, not to produce the Great Work, but to allow the Great Work to percolate from the Lesser Works.
Dampen your enthusiasm for the upper heights of the exalted mountain. Focus on the paths and steps of the lower slopes for a period of time, where the shrines and stupas of the meditators, the seats of the poets, the caves of the prophets are found. Linger among these places, not around the new-built gazebos where fresh-gathered crowds linger to hear some still-living itinerant (who has upgraded his donkey to a horse, and now has his eye on a pair of fine Arabians and a carriage). Instead, seek the wisdom by the old springs and the memorial inscriptions on the narrow parts of the paths where few travelers venture. Some such roads are dead-ends; others lead to the summit’s middle slopes. Tread with a measure of boldness and caution.
Argument among the crowds of the lower slopes seems common. Keep your head down, your tongue stilled. Listen to the voice of truth — these three words on one set of lips, the next seven on several others’, the full ten from nowhere in particular. Do not give in to acrimony and poison — instead put a hole in the bottom of your jar and let it drain at every session in secret, catching with your finger or your mouth only the words worth drinking down. Then drink those down instantly, sparing none for later.
Youthfulness in a magician is a rarity. It is not to say that there are no young magicians — only that a young magician has not always passed the tests and trials of an old magician; a certain careworn attitude is becoming in a magician, too — for a magician whose magic has failed them from time to time is less trusting of its ambivalent help. More, recognize that there is a long distance between advice and help — for one magician may say, “here are the directions to where you wish to go,” and another may say, “the path is tricky. I will go with you.” One is more cunning than the other, but one is more dedicated to the work than the other; it remains to the traveler to decide if the company of the wizard is worth keeping.