On Power and Magic
Throughout the ages Power has always been at the centre of magical practice. Wether we look at the herbs and potions of the witch, the fires in the ancient temples of Greece and Egypt or the intricate circles of the Medieval mage - the desire to consciously affect changes on the inner or outer realm always established the fundament of the Arte.
Yet, while the desire to acquire power through magic has been a constant for millennia, some of the keys to get there were lost. Or maybe just hidden? Either way, unfortunately we won't find these keys in the Greek Magical Papyri, nor in the Grimoires. These keys sleep in the present time, in the here and now. We extract them from our own practice.
This essay is based on simple model of how to understand power in magic. Following its introduction, we will explore it by means of an everyday (business) example, examine it's two pillars of Experience and Meaning, reflect on how it can be abused by magical teachers and on some thoughts on how to best leverage it in our own magical practice.
1| A simple Model of Power in Magic
To understand how magical power flows, how it ebbs and tides through our practice as magicians let’s consider the essential elements or layers of any magical act first: What exactly is it that fosters or inhibits significant progress in magic? What are the variables we need to work on, which will reduce and block or open and expand our access to magical power?
The following model provides a simplified overview. We'll leverage it throughout this article to illustrate multiple aspects of the subject of power in magic. It is based on the wonderful 2009 TED talk by the now famous Simon Sinek.
- WHAT or Practice - The outermost ring contains the sum of actual magical practices as recorded in any given tradition. Examples of this are the raw ritual instructions as recorded in the Medieval Grimoires. Here we find the bare bones, the pure elements of magical rites. Instructions are given - often in abbreviated form - to establish conscious contact to sources of magical power and/or consecration. Progress in this layer is indicated by a movement from Intent or Will to Action. Conscious work on this layer is the prerequisite for any skill building.
- HOW or Understanding - The middle ring stores the cosmology that underlies any living magical practice. It contains the specific esoteric history and theory from which intellectual understanding about any given magical tradition can be gained. Here all information of a specific magical paradigm is stored. I.e. this ring is the cluster of recorded esoteric knowledge, language and symbols of any given tradition. Progress in this layer is indicated by a movement from Ignorance or Not-Knowing to Knowing. Conscious work on this layer is the prerequisite for any authenticity and innovation.
- WHY or Motivation - The innermost ring illustrates the deepest - and often unconscious - motivation of why magic is practiced at all in any given tradition. It holds the purpose of magic specific to any given magical current. It also explains the end to which the gain of power through magic is applied. It represents the cluster of all human, social, ancestral and divine needs that can be addressed and satisfied through magic. On this deepest layer magic becomes an indicator of man's purpose in creation. Progress in this layer is indicated by a movement from Latency or Sleep to Desire. Conscious work on this layer is the prerequisite for access to any significant amounts of power.
2 | A simple example
It's the condition of these three layers that determines the level of power any practitioner will be able to achieve throughout his life. The more coherent the three layers are within the body, soul and mind of the practitioner the higher the likelihood he will find access to significant levels of power in their practice. Vice versa: the more incoherent, the more unintegrated one layer is with the other, the less power will flow through the actions of the practitioner.
Let's illustrate the implications of this model with a simple example.Think of a kitchen chef who aspires to gain a Michelin star at some point throughout his career. Now, let’s go through each layer in sequence:
- The WHAT or level of Practice is pretty clear - this guy needs to achieve adept level of cooking sooner or later. I.e. of being able to operate a full kitchen, a team and most importantly on a wealth of ingredients. That alone will give him the basic skills to get anywhere - yet it doesn’t get him a Michelin star.
- The HOW or level of Understanding will be equally important. I.e. the guy needs to grow strong and living roots into the tradition of cuisine he is planning to excel in. He needs to know its history, its important chefs of the past, their affect on local communities. He probably needs to know a lot about the land from which this cuisine developed, its social background, weather, farming methods as well as about all local and imported plants engrained in this tradition. This adds a deep level of understanding to his actual practice of cooking. However, it will still not make him a Michelin chef. What is missing still is the innermost ring.
- It is the WHY or the level of Desire that needs to be mastered first. Besides the two faculties above our kitchen chef also needs to know exactly WHY he is on this journey? He needs to see the picture of success as clear in front of him as a Saint would see his picture of salvation. Why is it that a Michelin star matters beyond himself? I guess it is because of his customers? Because of the people who will come to his restaurant and spent their time and money there. Along with the technical skills of a chef as well as the knowledge of the history of the tradition he needs to be able to answer WHY people should come to his house rather than the next one down the road? Because even he won’t start out as a Micheline chef. He will start like everyone else. So why visiting his place? The real question is: How does he aspire to enrich other people’s lives? What positive impact will fulfilling his own dream have on the dream of others? More precisely: which of his customers’ dreams can be realized only by him realizing his own first?
I guess that's the most essential thing I learned about power: True Power flows from the inside out. While Practice and Understanding are crucial to any success in magic or elsewhere in life, more often than not they aren’t the most critical variables that determine the level of power accessible. Instead it is determined by the innermost ring. It is this deepest layer where we have to face the naked truth. Why do our dreams matter - beyond the thin boundary of our own skin?
3 | Two Pillars of Power:
Experience and Meaning
When we bring this model to life and compare it with our own magical practice it is interesting to see where in the past we used to start our magical journey: Did we tend to start with pure practice, jumping right into the cold water and then slowly moving inwards by exploring how what we discovered related to the bigger picture of our tradition? Or did we start with our inner desires, then explored the tradition we are part of like a huge treasure map of access points, until we found the one that promised to satisfy what we were looking for?
There is no right or wrong in discovering our own path into the different layers of magical power. The journey can be started at any point as all layers are interdependent. However, the single precondition to make any significant progress on this path is to explore all three layers equally. Because only then will we be able to not only gain experience, but experience that is charged with meaning.
Here is the trick in a nutshell: magical experience is gained by moving from the outside inwards. The path of experience starts with practice and uses the actual performance of the craft, the direct engagement and exploration of spiritual reality as the pathway to a deeper understanding of the tradition and balance of one own’s desires. This path is still illustrated best by the ancient mystery cults - when the Neophyte was exposed to stark and traumatizing experiences during initiation rites which gained much of their power from not being explained upfront. It were these rites that aimed at changing once inner desires - i.e. elevating the state of the soul of the Neophyte - by pure and raw experience rather than self-reflection or psychological analysis. Thus Experience begins with the WHAT and then flows inwards through the layers of HOW and WHY.
Meaning, on the other hand, expands by approaching it from the opposite direction, from the inside out: from WHY towards HOW towards WHAT. To stay with the example of the initiation cults: their rites in isolation were moments of unique and glaring experience. Yet they didn’t unfold their actual Meaning until the practitioner successfully related them to their actual personal lives outside the cult. If we look at our own ritual practice today we still find the same thing to be true: For anything to be truly meaningful it needs to touch, influence and change our own everyday life and desires.
In existentialism Meaning is defined as that which definesthe worth of life. It is something that only exists on an individual level and is subject to one’s own interpretation. Meaning has a home and comes to life in each one of us only. If we accept this definition we can realize how the worth of live can be changed by following the three rings from the inside out: by realizing our own desires and motivations, by understanding their place and home in the tradition we belong to and by expressing them in related magical symbols, practices and rites. This how we aim to create Meaning that increases the worthiness of living both lives.
Earlier we found to gain access to significant amounts of magical power we need to explore all three rings equally, the WHY, the HOW and the WHAT. On examining the dynamics of moving through the three rings in either direction we realized the actual reason for this: because the archway of magical Power rests on the two pillars of physical experience and the meaning we extract and co-create from it.
The Gnostic Tradition knows the image of the lover and the beloved to describe the mysterious relationship between the practitioner and the divine powers they are engaging with. What a beautiful image this is to describe at the same time the sensuality as well as the meaningfulness of this vital relationship. Maybe this is the key then - forged from the experience of our senses and the sense we make of it? It will keep the magical gates shut both for the self-centered as well as the superficial magician.
4 | Abuse of Magical Power
by Spiritual Teachers
Unfortunately there are myriads of techniques that allow to limit, shut down or harvest the magical power of the Neophyte. If you want to learn from the true masters of this art, I suggest to study the practices of the Catholic Church. They are the prime-example of how to limit spiritual power accessible to communities and to yet generate huge amounts of dependency and obedience. Everything magical orders achieved compared to this is simply on a very different scale.
So here is one way of doing this - potentially the most simply one: If you want to limit the access to magical power for your students just block access to the rings of ‘HOW’ and ‘WHY’. Just keep them busy with tons and tons of material of ‘WHAT‘. Thus the most straight forward way to disempower your students is to give them exactly what they asked for when they came to you: pure and plain instructions of how to perform magical rites. What you don't tell them is that to make your magical instructions so 'pure and plain' unfortunately you had to cut them loose from any deeper layer of meaning as captured in your tradition or as set free by connecting them to the subjective inner realms of the students.
Take a look at the classic Golden Dawn study books and you will immediately see how this technique is applied in practice. Wether it was done on purpose to keep the veil of secrecy over the things that actually matter for true magical initiation or not - the effect on the practitioner is the same. These books are marketed as complete step-by-step self-study lectures that lead to self-initiation. I.e. they come with the specific claim that nothing else is needed to gain access to magical power than following their instructions... ‘Just do WHAT I tell you in this book and the doors will open.’ Now, take another look at their textbooks and look at it from the perspective of ‘HOW’ and ‘WHY’: How much do they tell you about the roots of this magical tradition, about the magic of the Chaldeans, the Egyptians, the Gnostics, the early Hermetics, their worldview, their relation to the land, their local culture - and that Meaning can only unfold once we perceive magic as an expression of who we are and the times we live in?
Don’t get me wrong: since the early days when Regardie decided to publish the material of the outer grades, the Golden Dawn has done service to the Western Magical tradition by capturing a complete curriculum of magical practice in writing. Yet, unfortunately they have slammed shut as many doors as they opened - leaving behind a very narrow, blind-sided path and perspective on our Western Magical Tradition. In doing so the actual service their books have paid to the magical community might have benefitted the order itself much more than the Neophytes who were looking for a living magical tradition? Considering this was all done by self-declared ‘adepts’ of the arte - this is pretty much what I call abuse of magical power.
The role of a magical teacher who doesn’t abuse power is to allot the right amount of magical practice to the Neophyte. So that the student's layer of ‘WHAT’ - of the practice s/he starts to explore - is just sufficiently filled with new and often disturbing experiences to ask for the HOW of the tradition as well as the WHY of his own actions and desires. Leading the Neophyte on this path from the outside into the centre of the model of magical power is a truly secret form of art. It is also the most exciting adventure for student and teacher alike - as none of them know where the journey will lead them to...
Note: In this example of abuse of magical power by the Golden Dawn I am referring to their vast body of published self-study material only. I am not in a position, nor do I want to make any statement or claim about the quality of teaching that is given inside the various orders face to face.
5 | Crafting Vessels of Power
In ancient times the major purpose of magic was to ward off crisis. In times of great need the divine power that had been charged in ritual vessels before were then harvested. Power was released from statues, from temples, scented fires and sacred groves. The closest practice to this we can still witness today are the official parades of statues of Saints or the Holy Mother as practiced in some parts of Europe to this very day. Only that the Catholic church was smart enough to cut out the ritual of actual energy release while surrounded by the community...
However, on close examination we find that magical power was not only released from sacred objects or holy parts of the land, it was also released from human bodies - as stored in their physical vessels. So how can our bodies become such strong containers of magical power that their outpouring can effect entire communities or parts of the land?
We discussed the basics that are necessary in the previous chapters - knowing your Why, understanding the How of your tradition and mastering the What of the craft. Assuming we all have to explore our Whys on our own - may it be in vision, in dreams or therapy - let's talk a little more about How we can craft such strong containers of magical power from our bodies?
Now, here is the golden rule that has broken so many magicians before: The amount of power you want to apply on the outer world through magic, is the same amount of power that first has to pass through your own body and mind. This means the same amount of power you want to apply on your boss, your lover-to-come, your neighbors or generally in life needs to pass through your own body and mind in advance. The simple truth is: any pressure you want to apply on the outside needs to be channeled through the inside first.
Think of a magical invocation and you'll understand immediately what I am talking about: the forces of the spirits flow through you. Before they can reach anything on the material realm, it is your mind, body and soul that form their gate.
So here is how you can think of the two roles of the mage as initiator and mediator or vessel in a graph:
Well, I know what you might be thinking? Can't we outsmart this law of magical power balance by applying evocations rather then invocations? Can't we just lock the door to our own sphere with a magical circle and contain the demon in the triangle of Arte. I guess in principle that should work, in practice, however history has proven it rarely does.
Sooner or later there will be physical contact between the spirit summoned and yourself - may it be in the realms of dreams, while cleaning up your temple or even in bright daylight on your local kids playground. In essence the idea of bypassing this law of balance by techniques of evocation is just as smart as the idea we could actually get rid of nuclear toxic waste... In theory we sure can - yet even after decades of research and trial-and-error we rarely do in practice.
That's why if you want to do yourself a favor you only deal with the power your physical body is ready to handle. Any demon that you wouldn't want to encounter during an invocation rite - I suggest to put it on your list for workings in the future. Future defining the state when your ritual techniques as well as the qualities of your magical power container, i.e. yourself had time to mature further...
Let's illustrate this basic of law of magic by use of an example: Think of a regular water pipe in our walls. If the water contained in it flows with low pressure the pipe itself only needs to be able to accommodate a low amount of power. I.e. if it is old, somewhat fissured or if it contains some sediments inside, it doesn't really matter as long as it can still pass on the water delivered through it at a relatively low amount of pressure.
Now, if we suddenly increase the level of pressure in the tube, what is going to happen? Clearly the water will gush out of the end of the pipe more powerfully. E.g. If the purpose of our action of increasing the level of water-pressure was to fill our bathtub quicker at first glance we will consider ourselves successful. However, at the same time the pressure inside the pipe has increased as well - and all the damage of the pipe will suddenly become highlighted. All the tiny flaws that had been acceptable before suddenly become obstacles and the risk they imbue on the overall process has significantly increased. Fissures might become cracks, sediments might be washed out and over time the whole pipe might blow up...
Strip away all magical tricks, all Ifs and Buts and you'll find: The same amount of power that is applied to support our intent is also applied against ourselves. And so we are back to our original question: if we aim to become better containers or mediums of power, what inner and outer qualities do we need to change? The actual act of increasing the water pressure in the pipe, i.e. opening the valve further is simple enough. Actually it is quite helpful to understand at this point that there are unlimited amounts of power around us. Literally, power without boundaries surrounds us. We are the boundary that matters. And that is especially true in magical rites.
None of us need to be a genius to perform the rites of the Goetia. The practice of Grimoires doesn't contain rocket science, but very clear instructions on What one needs to do to achieve certain results. Yet, as we have seen the true risk doesn't lie in the nature of the demon, the quality of our circle or that missing lion belt for our collection of paraphernalia. The real risk lies in the echo effect which any magical power has on our minds, our bodies and souls - well, even on the people that live with us.
A very wise man once said to me: Every contact is erotic. Every touch of a fruit, every moment in the sun, every sip of coffee, every rainfall, each contact is erotic. Slow down your life and you feel it: Our conscious is drawn out from its centre, towards its boundaries, contact is established and true experience begins. It is the boundaries of our bodies, the boundaries of our minds and souls where all erotism is taking place. Two boundaries meet and our potential as a human beings unfolds: smell, taste, sight, touch... Let's be gentle to our boundaries. Let's respect the fine line between where we begin and where we end. Because a skin full of scars feels less.
To achieve true magic, to charge our experience with true meaning for ourselves and others, the real question isn't about the amount of power we can hold. It is about the qualities we bring to life when we get in touch.