On Man's Place in Magic - or why developing character is the hardest thing.
A few weeks back I shared what I called 'A Manifest for Man's Place in Magic'. In it we explored man's relationship with the spirits and the balance that once was intended for both parties to keep in giving and receiving in equal parts. The spirits were meant to teach man in their knowledge and control over nature; whereas man was to teach the spirits in return about how to apply this powerful and truly unique resource he controlled, called free will. We also learned that this relationship is not something we nor the spirits can choose to opt out of; it is an essential principle of creation whichever way we choose to behave. However degraded or selfish the intent of our actions, the spirits will continue to look at us as their teachers of ethics - and like children begin to mimic the way they behave against our own.
Both etymologies of the words 'ethics' and 'morals' relate back to the idea of man's character. The etymology of the word 'character' in return is deeply connected to the idea of leaving a mark on something, of engraving a specific symbol or shape into something. As magicians we want to be particularly focussed on this process - of deliberately engraving the shape of our future selves into the raw substance that we are. Let me put this into more simple words: our responsibility to lead a life of good character - to gain practice and skill in the art of applying our free will without causing unnecessary harm - might be the most impactful magical art for any adept to develop. By working on the raw stone we are born into, we work on all of the world around us and vice versa.
Now, over the past weeks I pondered quite a bit on why this process is so terribly hard? Why can't it be more easy to become a man or woman of good character? Why does it turn for most of us into a journey full of guilt, defeat and constant distractions, rather than the most playful and adventurous project we'll ever undertake? - What I found was a very good reminder to myself. A reminder of why both the foundations and the ultimate goal of magic should be deeply rooted in our everyday lives.
Why developing character is the hardest thing.
Let’s explore this hypothesis together: The biggest block to leading an ethical life is to fear failure. Actually, to be afraid of failure is a distinctly human invention. Nature never considers failure an option. Had it set out a few millenials ago to achieve evoultion and hat it been afraid of getting it wrong somewhere along that eternal path, where would that have left all of us? None of us would be here. Instead of being afraid of failure, nature embraced the idea of adaptive recovery as its secret design principle for everything it does. Failure thus turned from the worst-case scenario into a necessary trigger for any learning process.
Also, nature doesn't need to fear failure because everything that happens within nature is still nature. An atomic blast is nature, as are dawn and dusk. The diet coke on your desk is nature, as is the earth below the tarmac. The biggest accelerator to lead an ethical life is to accept flaws as a critical part of the journey. Our own flaws, the ones of the people around us and of the world we live in. Once we accept our flaws, we can begin to see that whatever happens to us in an untarnished light. Whether we thrive or break, whether we love or hate, it is still us. Or you could say: We are not the flaw and neither are we the success. Just like nature, we are the exercise that constantly attempts.
Now, for elemental beings the situation is quite differently. If you are a fire being and the land you live in goes through dramatic climate change, becomes colder and wetter and damper by the year, you are in real trouble. If your consciousness is bound to a part and not to the whole, you are in trouble if that part is being changed or even extinguished. If your consciousness is bound to the whole, however, you are in a pretty safe place. That is for as long as you don't identify with the status quo, the current constallation of the whole. Nature is a river that meanders through time and so are we. Remember the words of the Hermetic Tablet on man's nature:
'The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse. The father of all perfection in the whole world is here. Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.' (transl. by Isaac Newton)
That is meant to say we are the whole, not a discrete part of it. Just like nature, we cannot be destroyed but will be easily disassembled and reassembled many times within a life-time. To lead an ethical life, therefore, begins with not being afraid of the consequences of who we truly are.
Our own consciousness unfortunately likes to forget this, who we are and how much we are an expression of the whole. Our consciousness is made up of parts - different to ourselves - and therefore likes to identify with the specifics, with places and structures and beings in time. It's the work of a lifetime to overcome the boundaries of our consciousness, which is made up of particles of air-cells and fire-cells and water-cells and earth-cells. It is the work of a life-time to teach ourselves not to be afraid in the face of failure and change. Different to a fire-being, we do not need to fear the end of our flame. Because we are not a single spark, nor a single flame or fire, but we are also each drop of water and grain of earth. We are a cosmos bound in flesh.
Leading an ethical life is so difficult because we like to forget our wholeness and identify with its parts. What follows is a life led in defense, in protection and fortification - mostly of our own misunderstood, fragile selves. 'Ethics' - or even worse 'morals' - in such a world turn into the subjective defense walls we build against each other; one fragile part trying to armour itself against the constant onslought of change through the others. A body working like this - each organ protecting itself against the others, fighting over blood flow, nutrition and fluids - would switch into cataclysm immediately. And that is pretty much what is happening to our world these days.
In the previous post we learned how the spirits are here to teach us about nature, and how they are looking to us to teach them about ethics or applied free will in return. We now begin to see how connected these two sides of a coin truly are? For only if we as humans begin to understand nature, and how we are an essential part of it, summarising and summoning all of its parts within our bodies and minds, will we be able to let go of the urge to constantly take care of and protect ourselves, i.e. our current state of elemental assembly.
When I recently asked Josephine, how she would define inner piece she answered this: “Inner peace, besides the mystical aspect of it, is being neutral and centred in a non-peaceful situation. It is knowing your boundaries, being comfortable and secure in the knowledge of your own skill set: a solid foundation. It is not fighting to get to the top, but consolidating the quality of what you do now.” In light of our current topic I would build on this and alter it slightly: Inner peace is the consciousness of your own boundaries and being comfortable and secure in the knowledge that they are built to accommodate never ending change. They do not need to be fortified, upheld or defended, but like a child take pleasure from being observed in their ongoing state of change.
Whether we act born from an urge of fear or from the calm of our own centre, the spirits surrounding us always perceive as us teachers. In the absence of any other role models, whatever we do they embrace as the truth as to how to apply free will to the world. (The same is true for us when we observe them operating the basic processes of nature.) So slowly but surely within their own, tiny sparks of free-will the spirits begin to mimic our ethical behaviour. Thus the very way we behave towards nature, creates the future state of it - of our own nature as well as of the world around us.
It seems our main problem as humans lies in the powers we were granted, and yet our limited capacities to handle these. When born, we all hold the seeds within us to become a fully-formed living microcosm; and yet we are little more than raw substance waiting to be formed. The process of individuation, of creating a mature and responsible version of ourselves thus possibly isn’t a byproduct of life, but maybe it’s core? I believe it was H.P. Lovecraft who once said: ’The biggest miracle of life is that we do not need to understand nature, to use it.’ This miracle turns even more profound it seems once we begin to understand how we form a part of it.