The world around me seems to go crazy with the idea of self-optimization. To be more precise I should say: with the idea of self-quantification. Unfortunately the difference between the two seems to be insignificant to many? And that's where trouble begins...
Let me suggest to go on a little walk. A walk back and forth between our everyday lives and our lives in the circles of the magical art. However ancient the rituals we practice - as human beings we are part of the same modern society that seems increasingly obsessed with self-quantification. Maybe the trends we find inside and outside of our temples are not that different after all?
Here is what made me wonder in the first place: More and more people around me are wearing electronic wristbands, watches and clips to measure each step, each stair they take. They track sleep patterns and nutrition intake via apps and control their sense of achievement and self-accomplishment by how well they adjust to metrics chosen for them. For some reason they seem to think of their ability to quantify themselves as the measure to which degree they are realizing themselves? Actually it's getting to a point where things either can be quantified - in the quantity of movement, of nutrition, of sleep, of weight-loss - or they are lost from the radar of their consciousness altogether... None of these apps track wether the food people ate was tasty, wether their body needed it at this moment in time or how they actually felt while digesting it?
As so often when a nice idea turns into an industry trend, quality fades into the background a little too quickly when confronted with the seeming power of pure quantity...
"If our life stories used to be reducible to a shoebox full of old photographs (...), now we will remember ourselves by Fitbit at the gym, a shoe sensor called Amiigo, a wristband device called Basis, indoor-environment monitoring systems, Jawbone’s UP for sleep and fitness, Google Glass and other wearable cameras for “first person” recording and video lifelogging, or even a once-esoteric heartbeat-variability monitor called the emWave2 that was recently available on the sales site Groupon." (Alissa Quart, The Body-Data Craze)
Well, once I started to think about this I realized that as magicians we should know a thing or two about self-optimization? Four-thousand years ago our craft was forged into its current patterns as the actual mean to overcome crisis and turn the tides of fate. The whole idea of magic in Ancient Chaldea and Egypt was to 'optimize' the situation of people in power - or the ones trying to get there - and in fewer cases of the ordinary folks working for them.
So I thought to myself: Magicians actually should have something to contribute to this debate - this modern trend of quantifying and trying to control by numbers the beast we call ourselves?
Strangely though, upon looking into it what I found was quite surprising... It dawned on me that this trend might not be so recent after all? Maybe what we see happening here in bright daylight of mainstream society is part of a similar current we have been experiencing in the twilight of magic for a much longer period of time? At least for the last for the last 200 years I would suggest... Let's not be afraid to wear our big boy pants and face up to the harsh reality: Maybe as magicians we have lost long ago what people with Nike or Jawbone wristbands are just about to lose today?
Let me explain why I would suggest this: One can assume a very basic formula that determines magical success. I am certainly not suggesting this formula is absolute or final in the form I am about to share. It is simply a starting point, a jumping off point for any magician who aims to ‘optimize’ themselves or the world around them. The formula would look something like this - and unfortunately is pretty broken in most magician's practices today:
What it tries to convey is the following:
- Learning how to bind and dissolve forces within and around you are the most essential tools in magic.
- The higher your need for your own ego to be recognised by and confirmed through your magical practice, the more your efforts will be flawed and ultimately fail or at least limit yourself.
- Finally, any magical work is directly linked to the magician's readiness to listen and be taught. Just like in science or art there is no such thing as progress in practical magic without the readiness to understand oneself as a life-long student rather than a master. Magic is about 80% listening and 20% acting.
Let me go into a bit more detail on the aspects of the formula that matter most for our current exploration:
- The Ability to Bind ('Coagula'): Achieving anything extraordinary will require a certain level of self-discipline. Not that self-discipline in itself will suffice to get you there or will always be a helpful ingredient on our journey - yet, without the ability to consciously tap into this skill, to activate it willingly, no progress can be achieved. Gaining the ability to bind our will and actions to a certain goal is the fundament most magicians spent the first years of their practical training on.
- The Ability to Let Go ('Solve'): Any binding exerted for too long will lead to rigidity. Any force bound for too long to a certain place or being will become deformed over time. From a traditional talisman, to a tutelary spirit, a bound angelic presence or the constrained forces of storm or destructive deities - they all need their moments to roam freely so they can re-balance themselves and ourselves - and ultimately return to where they belong to. Unfortunately the moments when it is for us as magicians to introduce order and structure into the seeming chaos around us are exceptionally rare. Much more often we tend to make things even worse by trying to 'clean' them up. Again - magic is about 80% observing - and often accepting - and 20% acting.
- The Need for Ego-Recognition: Finally, as magicians we should be experts in knowing that we know very little indeed. Over the last four-thousand years we should have learned that humbleness makes the best headstone for any of our inner temples. However powerful our magic may be, our own conscious realm (i.e. ego) is unsettlingly small and the forces that shape our lives incredibly ancient, vast and interconnected. Despite all the pleasure we take from it, trying to stand out, playing the hero might look good for a very short moment - if anybody was watching indeed - before Life simply walks over us and moves on... As humans we do not matter that much. And luckily we very rarely hold enough power to do anything meaningful - negatively or positively that is.
So being able to bind is incredibly important and so is being willing to let go again. And not always trying to be the one to tell which time is when is equally very helpful - but to rather listen and reserve this decision for the powers we work in service for. Well, I guess, that is if we ever chose to work in service?
Here is an example from my own current practice: Since several months I am working in service of the land spirits in my garden. As so often it's a deeply humbling experience with regards to my own inability to truly listen and understand what's going on around me. However, I will say, I never felt so stupid when dealing with planetary deities or angels during years of practice before? Maybe they were simply more polite - or I even thicker and dumber back then and didn’t notice? Yet, trying to work in partnership with the gnome who moved into my garden proves to be incredibly hard work: He wants me to do the easiest things - he knows by now how slow I am in the uptake - and I still get it wrong and he ends up doing most of the work himself. Most often when we interact I feel like a four year old at huge industrial construction site. This is to say: not anywhere near the Solomonic stereotype of the magical adept which many people with much less practical experience embrace so deeply...
Of course - you don’t need to bother with learning to listen if you confine yourself to work of Self-Optimization only. If you force the beings around you to execute on your own plans only - however stupid they might be from a spirit's pint of view - you won't need to go through the trouble of learning to work in partnership magically. Eventually you will need to learn to clean up your own mess in this case though. But for now everything is easy: Just continue to bind the spirits into bottles and metals and fluid condensers to accelerate on the road of narcissistic fulfillment. You might contribute to the exploitation we have made this planet suffer from on just one more level, but who cares? As long as you don't, it surely cannot be that important? ‘Cause who else would count, whose other's will would matter when you ride on the mage's highway?
I guess where I am getting to is this: in magic for the last hundreds of years we have done exactly the same simple mistake as my Jawbone- and Nike-technology equipped friends are doing today: When faced with a living reality that is mind-boggling complex, organically interwoven and mostly outside of our active control we have rather smashed it into quantifiable pieces than to accept our place as a contributing organ of a much larger whole. Rather than being okay to accept our lack of control and to blend into the hive being of life we are a part of we cut it into pieces that were small enough for our human brains to understand. Do you see how incredibly hard it is for life to work with us? Now, you can replace the term ‘life’ in the previous sentence with the terms of ‘spirits’ or ‘our own bodies’ and I guess you’ll get my point. Maybe remaining healthy and ‘checking in with yourself’ (or with the spirits around is) isn’t so much a matter of control after all - but of primarily diving into the 80% of listening and observing for a very long time.
Is this what happens if we fall out of touch with nature? If we stop spending nights out in the woods awake, if we stop learning from the plants and stones and soil around us. I guess this is what happens if we spend most of our time in the isolated worlds of our own little minds - protected by the thin and fragile shell of a virtual reality constructed to match our immature needs of self-centerdness and control.
Don’t get me wrong - I am not saying I am not part of this at all. Just like many of us I am spending most of my days in offices, on emails, on phone calls, etc. I guess the only difference I can see is that I am painfully aware of how I am failing to reconnect with nature in doing so. And that I constantly look for ways for not making it any worse. Wearing even more body-technology to replace the subtle, organic voice of our own bodies through numbers and stats just doesn’t seem to make things any better...
It’s in light of this that the fact that people need an electronic wristband to tell them if they have walked enough any day, makes me incredibly sad. I makes me sad for the spirit consciousness in our legs which is so great, so wonderfully built to speak to us for itself. The fact that people need a mini-computer to tell them when they have eaten enough, makes me incredibly sad. Sad for the spirits in their bellies and guts and tongues who are all made for talking to them - exactly about what they need more of and less of. Our whole body, each organ, each cell is constantly talking to us. Each of them form a spirit consciousness in itself and a complex hive being in total, deeply interconnected to the world we live in. These beings talk to us by changing our on state of being, by changing our perceptions, by changing our moods and thoughts. They speak to us by changing what we have come to call ourselves. -- How can anybody of us aim to talk the gods if we cannot even hear the voices of the spirits within us?
I guess, that's what happens when we put quantity over quality. When we lose our appreciation of strong, imminent, direct sensual perception. Our appreciation of our very own subjectivity I guess? Once we arrive at that point - so utterly alone and isolated within ourselves - it's no wonder we make up our own numeric language? No matter how incomplete and childish it is compared to the beauty of organic nature around us. No matter even how insignificant its words are - as long as we can control them. As long as our roles as the active engineer or the Solomonic magician help us not to repeat the trauma again we experienced so painfully: of being exposed to the loneliness within us.
In magic and in the popular world around us I see us making the exact same mistake: We are looking into the magic mirror for too long. Once we have lost our bonds and connectedness to the diversity of beings we are a gate to - all that is left in the mirror is ourselves. No other beings, no inner spirits, no echoes of the gods talking back to us...
Who wouldn't want to take a little recognition from a mini computer in such case? Who wouldn't want to press his techno wristband in moments like these? If not for all the data it will feed us, then just to know we are not alone. Somewhere there is someone else out there - with us and for us - measuring our steps and breaths and nutrition values and telling us we are okay... Thank gods.