A Modern Mandala of Magical Practice, Part 2 - Breaking through Habitus
In the previous part we looked at how magic works from an inner perspective, wether triggered consciously or unconsciously. The focus of the model shared was to examine how our 'True Will' and our unconscious desires interact with the world around us, in order to create experiences that resonate with their charges. It also showed how the impact of our behavioral reply - both on ourselves and our future experiences - will vary wether we chose to think about it, talk about it, act upon it or process it in form of a ritual.
I mentioned before that by nature every model is work in progress. It is hoped to be out of date soon - as this would proof we found an even richer and better validated perspective on the challenges at hand. For now, however, there is a lot left to be explored based on the premises shared in the first post...
One of the specific challenges that stood out when I continued to work with the model was the following: Let’s consider a magical act as a conscious intervention to induce change upon ourselves. Wether we want to change ourselves as persons or simply the circumstances we live in doesn’t matter at this point. If magic can be interpreted as an intervention triggered by the magician and executed by spiritual or divine forces, what exactly is it changing? In other words: What is the standard operating system that magic interferes with in order to create deliberate change?
Let me be more specific: For some reason it seems nature is built in a way that we as human beings are constantly limiting ourselves - our options for creative thinking or innovative acts? If we found a name for this mechanism that continuously prevents us from seeing more options to think, to speak, to act - than it is not unlikely we would have found the specific veil magical interventions help us to pierce through.
I mentioned earlier I have a background in communication science. Naturally one could take a million different approaches on the question posed above: We could look at our natural human limitations from a biological, historic, philosophical, anthropological, sociologic and many other perspectives. I know close to nothing about biology and certainly not enough about history to build on findings of other people. I know a little bit about anthropology and sociology. So naturally these will be the angles I will take to explore the subject further - as they will also be the frameworks that will limit my own thinking...
It was in the early 1970s when the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu reinvigorated a concept that had almost been forgotten by then. It is called habitus and describes a specific field of human disposition. The term had been used by many others before and in its original Greek form (hexis) is even to be found in the writings of Aristoteles. However, it was Bourdieu who turned it into a crucial element of his approach on the tendency of social structures to reproduce themselves over relatively long periods with surprisingly strong stability and consistency. Now, before we take a look at how this term could help us understand the impact of magical interventions on our lives, let me share a brief summary of what it actually describes:
Habitus refers to one’s often unconsciously adopted lifestyle, values, dispositions and expectations as shaped by the cultural, historic and social context of one’s everyday life experiences. It can be described as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of schemata, core beliefs, taste and dispositions. A certain assumption or behavior becomes part of one’s habitus - more often the habitus of a society - once the original purpose of that behavior or belief does no longer need to be remembered in order for the practice to remain socially active. It becomes automated, embedded into individuals of a certain culture and group and from thereon is expressed and often passed on unquestioned. Habitus therefore rarely functions at the level of explicit, discursive consciousness; rather it stays below the level of conscious reflection while distinctly giving form to behaviors, beliefs and practices of individuals and entire cultures. (source)
“The consciousness only holds a fraction of the totality of human experience. Whatever it holds has the tendency to settle as a sediment which means: experience solidifies to memory and turns into an identifiable and memorable entity. Without such sediments the individual could not make any sense of the events experienced in their life.” (Berger, Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, p.72)
So the habitus describes all habitual thoughts, speeches, practices or rituals a person can perform without needing to explain why they do so - neither to themselves nor to anyone else who is part of the same culture. The practices and assumptions of the habitus therefore become the unquestioned basis of one’s makeup as a personality. They are everything about ourself and the world around us we tend to take for granted by the time we reach adolescence.
With this in mind, we can take a look at the second part of the Modern Mandala of Magical Practice. At the end of this post you can find a short silent movie explaining the different stages of the model in motion.
All dynamics explored in the first model are now condensed in the central circle simply labeled as individual. They are still present and actively working, yet in this model we aim to understand what is happening around that individual triggered by its everyday actions or magical interventions potentially.
Therefore the starting point of this model is (1) the Individual as well as the (2) influence of socialization, the historic and cultural context that shape its thoughts, beliefs and dispositions. As discussed above from these influences emerges and forms the individual’s habitus (3).
It is the habitus and the inherent limitations on one’s worldview, assumptions and values that strictly limits the field of perceived behavioral options in any given situation (4.). This field determines the possible actions to be taken and thus they set boundaries to the individual’s behavior (5.)
Once action is taken the somewhat flawed software of our mind in most cases makes us interpret the specific results achieved as confirming our earlier assumptions (6.) - thus further leading to a fade-out of alternatives, a strengthening of our habitus and a continually reduced degree of decision making freedom.
Note: The results of our actions - even if negative or unexpected - only in rare circumstances make us question the things we take for granted. More often they are interpreted to confirm these further and to look for explanation within the limited freedom allowed by these premises. Such a pattern of self-sustaining interpretation works on a collective as well as individual level unfortunately. To learn more about this individual and social phenomena I recommend to read on the term of ‘constructivism’, specifically Berger and Luckmann’s seminal ‘The Social Construction of Reality’.
Finally, steps (7.) and (8.) give an idea of the effect of successful magical interventions. While they cannot take away the entire suit of armor or limitation of one’s habitus, they can broaden and enrich the field of perceived behavioral options significantly. Such change of perspective isn’t achieved easily especially when more fundamental aspects of one’s own life or the world around us are approached. However, it is definitely possible as we know from many historic examples - hopefully our own magical experience - as well as the subsequent taboos most civilizations have put upon these practices.
What we end up with is a 360° perspective of a model that shapes, guides and reconfirms our actions, behaviors and underlying assumptions. Most importantly possibly as magicians - we are also equipped with a map of human and social dynamics that we should be conscious of when voluntarily disrupting it through our magical practice.
Now, let’s rewind a bit and go really slow here. For a moment let’s ask why we develop such a self-limiting disposition? As upon second glance we will quickly discover many of its positive aspects: Without a habitus the world we encounter would simply be unbearable. Each new experience, each new encounter would confront us with fundamental questions about how to conceptualize them, how to integrate them into existing beliefs and assumptions and - most challengingly - how we chose to react to them. While from a philosophical point of view this might sound like a desirable state of being, it would be hugely inefficient and impracticable. Wolves would have eaten us, fiends would have killed us, diseases would carried us off and our social circles would have expelled us long before we could have created sufficient conscious habits to get anywhere close to survival.
It might be hard to swallow, but automatization - or habitualization in a social context - is a crucial component of our makeup as humans. Just like the autonomy our nervous system requires from our conscious mind to function properly, so our habitus cannot be taken away from who we are without creating a burden for our limited rational minds that would turn our lives deeply dysfunctional. The veil that limits us equally is the veil that allows us to survive. Limitation is not a flaw, but a premise of successful adoption to the world around us.
So, here is the Faustian magician - always seeking to expand his horizon of understanding and experiences, aiming to pry deeper and deeper into the DNA of creation - needing to accept that he is trying to swim upstream, against the natural current of life. I know, it is not an easy lesson. Actually, accepting our own boundaries and limitations might be the toughest lesson many magicians approach over a lifetime.
But why does this matter when our original question was to better understand how magic works? Well, here is the thing: When I set out on my own magical path my teacher explained to me what magic truly is. He defined it in the simplest of all terms, he summarized it plainly as ‘tools for freedom’. Tools - some rare physical ones and many more spiritual and mental ones - that will allow for constant expansion of our circle of freedom to take the choices we want to take, to lead our life in the ways we aim for, to go through the experiences we crave for.
Many years later I am still convinced this is a wonderful definition of magic for any novice of the art. From where you are when you set out on this path, this definition holds utterly true - at least for the first decade of practice or so. Only then will you hit that threshold that makes you realize that more freedom will always be possible, but not necessarily a good thing. Only then do we reach that point of realization that being bound by, being confined by something is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply depends on the place we are bound to and the forces we are bound by... The actual truth is, magic isn’t just a set of instruments for freedom. It is more than that. It is a set of tools to free yourself of limitations that hold you back on your path. However, what is even more important, it helps you discover the inner perspective to see your own path.
Walking any path in dedication, in service and humbleness requires devotion and being okay to be bound by the trail you are following. It is this threshold my teacher didn’t talk about - knowing that it would remain meaningless until I realize it myself. I guess, following the path of freedom is only a worthwhile endeavor for as long as we haven’t found that thing it is worthwhile being bound by?
As magicians it would be naive to assume we could completely rid ourselves from our habitus over time - to take nothing for granted, to view the world through unbiased eyes and thus to see and to realize and to understand things as they truly are. This might have made for a great punchline in Goethe’s Faust - yet it is an incredibly childish goal in actual life. What we can aim for as magicians, however, is to break free from the limitations of our habitus more often than others. While we will never have complete freedom to chose our own thoughts and beliefs and deeds we can certainly aspire to a higher degree of freedom than we were given by birth. From experience of many generations of wise men before us we know, this higher degree will not make us saints or keep us from repeatedly falling like all humans do who walk the path of their calling until they eventually succeed. But this higher degree of freedom will give us the one thing that sets us apart from the numbness and automatization we encounter so often in our modern world: it will help us realize our calling.
Once, and even if only for a short while, you take away the habits, the repetition, the things taken for granted, a field of possibilities opens ahead of you. And while none of us will be able to pursue all of these possibilities in a single life, one of them will stand out to us: a single strand of future we might not have seen or even thought of being possible before.
This is what magic can help us achieve: to gain a level of freedom from ourselves and the world around us that for a very short moment, a split second only maybe we stand tall and free of the waves and tides and dynamics of everyday life. And right ahead of us, in the far, far distance, we might be able to see who we were meant to become when we landed in this place. And as we fall back into the water, as the waves close back above us, we take this image with us. It will stay within us, directing our actions, adjusting our habits, forming the things we are willing to accept. And it will help us steer our own course, in pursuit of this vision of ourselves or the world around us that we saw in a moment of freedom.
Magic is this wonderful set of instruments that helps to create freedom - as well as bounds created in freedom.