In my last post on this blog, I had reflected on the perspective voiced by the character of Henry Fogg in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians that the magician’s inner pain is what makes them stronger: that they “burn it as fuel, for light and warmth,” and in so doing have “learned to break the world that has tried to break [them].” I said at the time that I would leave an analysis of that question to my next post on the subject.
It turns out there’s no way to answer that question except through experience. And if we hadn’t already had enough inner pain as it was, the novel coronavirus has affected us all in our own disparate ways, giving us plenty more of it to deal with. It’s certainly left me with my own share of scars to bear.
So, what deep truths have I learned about the nature of magic and pain? Was Fogg right after all?
Well, the jury’s still out. Do those of us who are called to the magical path experience pain more deeply than anyone else? Maybe. Maybe not. Each of us only knows our own experience; the inner experience of every other person is uniquely their own. Only the Mercurial art of communication can bridge the gap and give us the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another. What I do know is that it would seem to me a bit elitist and presumptuous if anyone other than a fictional character posited that magicians as an entire class of people experience life in a qualitatively different way from the entirety of the rest of humanity.
That said, there may yet be some truth in Fogg’s words if we dig a bit beneath the surface. Whether one follows the psychological model or the spirit-driven model of magic, I believe most would agree that a universal feature of the magical path is finding healing and psychic re-integration from the traumas and other psychic damage that we have experienced as an unavoidable consequence of growing up human. Magic–real magic, not merely rote performance and words read from a page in a voice bereft of feeling–moves you at a deep level. It forces you to face uncomfortable truths, to grow in ways you never expected and quite often couldn’t have imagined, and to either get a real good handle on your shit while you go a bit crazy compared to the rest of the world, or do a lot of damage to your life in the process. I’ve experienced a bit of both sides of that coin, and I’m here to tell you that magic itself can be a source of trauma as much as a source of healing. Sometimes, it’s both simultaneously. Magic is weird like that.
Despite all this, at the end of the day, my magical path and my relationships with my patron deities, angelic spirits, and my familiar and ancestral spirits have given me many of my greatest experiences of transcendent connection, and given my life much of its meaning, motivation, purpose, and direction. In the search to understand the experiences I have had, in the exploration of the unknown, the constant inquiry and thirst for knowledge, I’ve grown far more comfortable with being uncomfortable. In the process, I have become more accepting of people who differ from myself, I have grown more compassionate toward myself and others, and I have become stronger through adversity with the help of my guardians and guides, as well as my own Higher Self.
My relationships with the spirits have also put me through a lot of shit, because when you serve the gods and have those relationships with the spirits, they are relationships. They are generally founded on loving reciprocity, and they make demands on your time and attention just like human relationships. Except those demands are often far more subtle than offerings of candles or incense or food and water on an altar every so often. And as myth will attest, the gods and the fates both have a deeply ironic sense of humor and care little about human ideas of consent–so the demands often tend to come in the form of things just happening in your life in serendipitous but highly inconvenient ways. For those of us who enjoy safety, familiarity, and comfort (hint: that’s all of us), this can be really obnoxious. There’s never a convenient time to experience a major realignment in one’s life when called to the service of a patron deity. There’s never a convenient time to have experiences that look and sound batshit crazy to most people because you’ve crossed the Abyss, been possessed by a spirit, or performed an intense rite of initiation like the Abramelin ritual, and then have to work on re-integrating yourself with the rest of society afterwards. And yet somehow those big upheavals, those experiences of the Tower struck by lightning, give us the opportunity to rebuild stronger after having been levelled to our foundations. Magic, much like life, is paradoxical like that.
We know that evolution only occurs when challenges present themselves. In the case of biological evolution, those challenges are things like mating opportunities and food scarcity and predators and other things that shorten the reproductive lifespan. In the span of an individual human life, the evolutionary challenges that present themselves include many more subtle challenges. Ones of meaning and motivation; of joy and depression; and of existing within structurally misogynistic, racist, and financially exploitative systems within our parent culture. Challenges of trauma and healing. Challenges of alienation from our selves, and the self-discovery and self-acceptance that reconnects us to ourselves.
Insofar as magic invites a new set of both opportunities and challenges into the practitioner’s life, ones which will inevitably create both healing and new sources of traumatic experience, it’s hard for me to argue that real magic isn’t very much about finding ways to burn that pain for fuel in some respects. Hopefully, by the grace of the gods, that fuel is food for the lamp of the Hidden Wisdom that illuminates our way forward in the darkness and gives us the hope to keep forging ahead.
For all of you out there who have survived this longest of winters, may the warmth of the spring bring you new life and opportunities for healing. With the spirits at your back, you are never in this alone. Keep hope alive, friends. We’re all in this crazy journey together.