On Practicing Magic - Freestyle vs. Prisonstyle

As we search for our magical path - things can easily look confusing at first glance.

Reading and writing about the works of Emil Stejnar opened a fascinating door into a new magical paradigm for me. Yet, at the same time my own magical practice is strongly influenced by the techniques and inner pathways Josephine McCarthy lays out in her seminal works. At first glance it can easily seem these two ways of practicing and teaching magic stand in stark contrast to each other - almost representing two different types of schools. 

Thus I want to take some time to compare their approaches and to look for bridges between them. As different as they might seem - I have benefited tremendously from allowing both of them to be present in my life and to shape my magical path in turns. 


If one first came across the bodies of work of Stejnar and McCarthy and compared the two of them he could end up pretty confused: While one (Stejnar) advocates strict thought control, the other (McCarthy) recommends to use the colours of the mind in true Aikido-fashion and allow them to paint the inner worlds. Where one establishes a strict regime to tame the forces contained in the hive being we are as humans, the other acknowledged this nature as a fact and moves beyond it in the very first exercise (the Void). Where one aims to erect a pillar of untouched I-AM-SELF consciousness free of any outer influences or interdependencies, the other aims to immerse oneself into the spirit realm top to toe and work with the myriads of beings on eye level.

Of course I am simplifying here. Yet the point is: If we looked at this through beginner's eyes a very simple question might emerge - almost as a precondition to any other question that might come at a later point. And this simple question would ask: So how much structure is necessary in magic to achieve results?

Because this is the paradox: If structure in magic is over-applied and taken too far on one side it can stall all true magical experience and our practice turns into pseudo-scientific validation of mental cognitions and reference frames. This clearly is the risk with many forms of ‘formed magic’ that have been dominated by males for too long, e.g. Stejnar’s own work, many streams of traditional Kabbalah or even most of the GD tradition as it stands today. On the other hand if magical experience is initiated and worked with intensely without any sort of underlying structure, map to the territory or ability to validate one’s own experiences it can easily turn into daydreaming, fantasizing and self-fulfilling prophecies. Worse, it can make us dependent on beings we work with, without even realising it. 

One of many examples of 'formed magic' - The visible worlds according to the Rosicrucians (Jennings, The Rosicrucians, their Rites and Mysteries, 1870)

In order to find a possible bridge between these two extremes, allow me to make use of a personal example: As the result of some magical work I did over recent weeks I am receiving a lot of new information. I started to work with some inner contacts and they in turn now start to work with me... The challenge in these situations - as I begin to understand - is that this knowledge unfolds according to organic and not necessarily logical patterns: Think of a plant, breaking up its seed, then unfolding underneath the earth, cells splitting, multiplying, patiently growing into their new shapes. If the emerging mental spirit of the plant interfered with this process by slowing it down to understand each sequence and step logically - no plant would ever make it to carry fruits.

For us to experience essential change, to transform and turn into something we weren’t before we need to accept that a certain amount of chaos, confusion, loss of control and being at one’s own wit's end will be part of the equation. If we constantly limit the amount of change we are exposed to by our mental capacities to process it, we will never get very far. Furthermore, many of the deeper layers of change within us can only be touched once our minds are lost and confused and therefore their filters are turned off. The entire tradition of freemasonry once understood this principle and then poured so much structure, dogma and hierarchy over it that they lost pretty much all of it - and burned the bridge. 

Now here is the other side of the coin: while the living forces we work with in magic breathe and unfold in organic patterns that we rarely control, it is our job to ensure the vessel they are poured into is strong and stable enough. This vessel is us. It is our physical bodies, our emotional bodies and intellectual minds. Paradoxically, however, as magicians the way we build and strengthen this vessel often is a hugely structured and formalized process: As we all know - building skills like sitting in asana for several hours, taming your mind’s eye or focussing your imagination can almost feel as repetitive as being in a gym and building muscles in specific body parts. 

So how does one leverage structure in magic effectively? My personal answer to this is it’s a matter of sequence. For most practitioners, with very few exceptions, their magical path will start out with introducing a significant amount of structure to their minds, lives and the way they practice. You will need to shut up and learn about the elements, about different magical traditions, about how to direct power within your body, about how to use your inner senses, etc. Only once you have laid a strong enough fundament of physical and mental skills as well as emotional balance and control, can you continue on the path to expose yourself to living powers which in turn will force you to give up much of the structure you assumed before. -- Well, I guess this last bit sounds somewhat counterintuitive?

An example of 'unformed magic' - excerpt of A.O. Spare's painting "Flame, Fugue, Flesh" (1954)

Think of yourself as an art student: When you first start to go to art college all you learn is technique. You’ll spend hours painting fruits, skulls and naked people. At this point of the journey your job is NOT to innovate and to push the boundaries. It is to understand the boundaries that exist already. Because most of them exist for a reason and will teach you quite wonderful things: Such as seeing through the eyes of an artist, dissolving boundaries between objects and light, spotting the lines on a fruit that carry its essence, controlling the muscles of your hands to recreate these lines on paper, etc... Only once you have mastered these basic skills to a sufficiently high level, you can move on and innovate according to your own imagination. Because in every abstract piece of art one can still spot if the artist had mastered the natural forms before. Thus mastering the concrete comes before mastering abstraction - or in more simple terms: first prisonstyle, then freestyle.   

So maybe this is how we can leverage structure in magic effectively: By being patient and okay with the fact that we all need to follow choreography before we learn how to innovate. This simple rule applies in all arts and so it does in magic: Exposing ourselves to certain amounts of structure is an essential pre-requirement for breaking free from it at a later point. Structure in magic can be understood as a gate that shapes you while you are passing through it. It leaves a mark upon you - even if you travel on without. 


Now, this might sound like a great idea - to use structures as gates one passes through, as keys to unlock specific experiences which quickly outgrow the keyholes which made them possible.

But how do we do this practically? Let's think of highly structured magical processes such as astrology, pathworking or creating spiritual entities... How do we practically leverage structure in such fashion? This is what we will explore in the following posts.