Exploring the intersection of magic, culture, spirituality, and humanity

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Podcast Interviews, Part Three

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Erik Arneson, host of the outstanding Arnemancy podcast.  We had a delightful conversation on the relationship of magic and computer hacking, the esoteric uses of cryptography, and a great deal about the philosophical underpinnings of magic–including some of the big questions that arise when you begin to explore the nature of magic itself.

Mercifully, we did not talk about the Kybalion.

Big thanks to Erik for having me on the podcast!

Listen now:  Anything but the Kybalion

All That’s Wrong with the Golden Dawn

After two full years of deliberation, I recently resigned from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  I had been a member for more than a decade, almost half of it as an Adept.  I had been struggling with this decision for two years, after I had a falling out with my mother temple in early 2019.  At the time, I exercised my right as an Adept to unaffiliate with that temple and continue on my Path as a solitary practitioner.  But in doing so, I felt adrift.  I had effectively lost not only my chosen family of 10 years, but all of the people in my life I held dear who spoke my own native spiritual language.  I had already experienced the Golden Dawn tradition elsewhere, first initiating into a different Order back in 2005, and anyone can walk that Path alone if they so choose–so my resignation didn’t mean that I couldn’t pursue my own spiritual journey anymore.  But my chosen family was irreplaceable, as was the experience of doing lodge-style magic with that family and having the rare and beautiful opportunity to walk hand in hand with others on the same Path.
Over the past two years, I have become more cognizant of how people outside the Golden Dawn tradition view those of us who follow it, as well as their opinions of the organizations which currently embody that tradition.  They see us as elitist gatekeepers, as out of touch magicians locked away in our ivory towers doing our little rituals together and not making much of a difference otherwise.
By and large, those people are right.
Don’t get me wrong, I have known plenty of Adepts in the tradition who don’t fit this description; in fact, I’d say it doesn’t apply to the majority of the people who were in the same temple I was, and the same is true of many of the Adepts whom I have met from farther afield.  Nor am I writing this from a place of personal bitterness:  I’ve taken the last two years to process my own pain over what I’ve been through, and I still consider myself at least in large part a devotee of the Golden Dawn tradition.  But structurally, I have come to believe that the temporal Orders which embody the tradition today are not pursuing it in the ways originally intended by its founders, and I believe that much of the culture of such Orders inevitably trends in problematic directions as a result.  Consequently, while it does not seem from the inside as though the shade thrown our way from those in the wider occult community is accurate or constitutes a fair assessment, the truth of the matter from my own experience is that despite the best intentions of everyone involved, the indictments largely hit home when the rubber meets the road.
The reasons for this are more complex than you might think.  To get to some answers for myself, I had to go back to the history of the Order–the original Order of the Golden Dawn, conceived in 1887 and given birth in 1888.  There are good reasons why it had the groundbreaking impact it did, and why its influences can still be seen even in many modern neopagan circles.  There are also good reasons why it exploded after only six short years into a series of offshoot Orders, which in turn birthed their own offshoot Orders, and there are likely equally good reasons why most of these ended up being merely a footnote in the long history of western magic.
I could choose to go into an exhaustive list of the problems in the contemporary Golden Dawn landscape (and I do indeed have a list); but despite this post’s title, I’m going to focus at present on what I see as the one core structural and cultural issue that appears to me most invisible from the inside, but which everyone else seems clearly able to see–and for which reason this issue is likely the single most pernicious one facing every modern-day Order and every individual magician that works in such an Order.  This problem is the reification of the system itself.
To understand what I mean by that statement, it’s important to understand a bit about the history and intent of the Order of the Golden Dawn and how the system has evolved over the years.  The skeletal framework of what would become the Golden Dawn system was set by the Cipher Manuscripts that William Wynn Westcott ostensibly obtained from Rev. Woodford, who had in turn inherited it from Frederick Hockley.  There was nothing especially new or hitherto unknown contained in the Cipher Manuscripts; rather, it was in drawing upon this as well as numerous and disparate other sources that Westcott and Mathers created the edifice that became the Golden Dawn system of magic.  It was the creation of a new Order itself, the masterful synthesis of the grimoiric magic and primordial myth and mystery traditions that had come before with the Masonic lodge system, that was the real evolutionary leap.
The ability to create such a lodge-based system was both a privilege of and perhaps a necessity inflicted by Victorian industrialized culture.  With less dire consequences for those who were discovered to be practicing magic than in previous centuries, the ability to congregate together for the purpose in a lodge or temple was a fairly new one–though the social consequences still made it necessary that the Golden Dawn remain a secret society.  At the same time, however, the Industrial Revolution had an incredibly alienating effect upon British culture.  The landscape and fabric of society had changed, and was becoming rapidly more distanced from the cultural context in which the grimoire authors worked their magic.  The vision of the Order of the Golden Dawn was to preserve these mysteries of the premodern world, and to give its aspirants the education in their symbolic language and provide an initiatory encounter with those mysteries in order for future generations to learn how to work the magic of the ancients–or at least the magic of a few centuries prior, which at that point might as well have been ancient history given the intellectual gulf between modern and premodern ways of thinking.
It is apparent from the histories of the Order and its members that the strategy proved effective.  While there were many Adepts who were not luminaries in their mundane lives, the magic that many of them were doing was experimental and at times revolutionary, and contributed back to the overall body of knowledge within the Order.  Innovation of technique and experimentation was encouraged, at least until it threatened Mathers’s power structure.  And as the Order served primarily to provide both a springboard for doing the real Work of magic and as a collegium for those who were doing it, the pace of a student’s advancement was effectively the pace at which they were able to copy and memorize the grade materials in order to internalize the symbolic language which served as a key tool both in working magic and in understanding how to work magic.  They were also given the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram in order to begin familiarizing themselves with some basic rudiments of ritual practice in a safe and controlled manner.
This Outer Order work of language acquisition generally did not take very long.  Given the pivotal role that the Crowley-Mathers schism played in the downfall of the Order, it is easy to overlook the fact that the “Battle of Blythe Road,” which played out after Crowley was denied initiation into the Second Order by the London Adepts and went to Mathers in Paris to appeal their decision, took place only 17 months after his Neophyte initiation.  By contrast, I took approximately five years to advance to Adeptus Minor after joining the HOGD as a Neophyte, and my rise through the grades was faster than most of my peers.  This fact alone should indicate that something has changed in the past 125 years in the way that the Order experience is structured.
To put a finer point on it, the primary thing that has changed between 1888 and 2021 is that once the Golden Dawn system of magic was disseminated, new Orders sprang up–but those Orders became primarily dedicated to working the Golden Dawn system, rather than propelling initiates through the language acquisition process necessary to work the magic.  Real magic is always transformative and evolutionary, on a deep personal level.  It is wild and refuses to be fit easily into boxes, and makes mincemeat of preconceived notions.  I hope you are beginning to see the problem here.  Transformation is the enemy of stasis, and when the Golden Dawn system was handed down to us by Israel Regardie (after Crowley had already published much of it, albeit with a far less sympathetic eye) it became something akin to infallible holy writ rather than an expression at a moment in time of an evolving and living tradition.  To some extent all contemporary Orders have had to be reconstructionists in order to work within the tradition, but it appears to me that those Orders have become more about the reconstruction of the system rather than its evolution and transformation.

Unfortunately, this means that most of the Golden Dawn magic out there is essentially magic on rails, which is antithetical to the way that the experience of real magic actually works.  Magic is not an experience on rails, and I can attest to the fact that nearly a decade of training did not prepare me for my own experiences of magical encounter with the world of the gods and spirits when it came knocking with a vengeance on my own ivory tower.  Once an Outer Order member becomes an Adept, the work does not significantly change.  You make the tools, you perform the prescribed rituals, you start to do a little more scrying and divinatory work, but otherwise you continue to work the system and take the exams.  In practice, innovation is discouraged.  When those innovations involve departing from the script, or from traditional ways of doing things, they are even more strongly discouraged. This state of affairs is not reflective of an Order which holds a healthy perspective on the magical journey.

Whenever “the system” is enshrined to such an extent that it takes precedence over the magician’s own Higher Self and their own path, that system inherently fails to serve the magician’s interests.  When any system (magical or otherwise) becomes reified such that it grows static and inflexible, and takes on higher priority than the individuals who participate in it, that system becomes pernicious to those ensconced within it–despite the best intentions of good-hearted people who are custodians of that system.  To create something new is always perceived as threatening or bringing death to the old, and to some extent this is unavoidable.  It is when the adherence to the system becomes an impediment to evolution that it becomes a hindrance to magic rather than a help.

The Order of the Golden Dawn was not conceived in 1887 so that it could become a static, reified system.  It was always intended to be a living system—one which was capable of springboarding initiates to Adepts, of introducing them to the realm of the spirits and the gods with which Victorian industrialized society was rapidly losing touch.  For a time, this system worked admirably at its task.  The work of the individual initiates who passed through Mark Masons’ Hall and through the other hallowed halls of the Golden Dawn temples to become Adepts, both through their magical lives and in the fruits which they bore into the wider world, provides more than sufficient attestation to the system’s efficacy.  The impact upon history, even after the collapse of the Order, is evidence that the Golden Dawn made its dent upon the universe in disproportionate measure to the individuals who were responsible for its founding and operation.

One need not be a dedicated scholar of Golden Dawn history, however, to see that the experiment also imploded in rather spectacular fashion within the span of six short years.  Nor must one look far afield today to see that the legacy of the Order of the Golden Dawn in latter-day organizations that take up its banner has been a tortured and fractious one, beset by a number of dysfunctions.  These dysfunctions have often resulted in Orders that are unhealthy and conformist at best, and exploitatively abusive at worst.  I have been fortunate not to have the latter experience, but I have certainly known a number of Golden Dawn magicians who have.

We can do better than this.

We must do better than this.

And I am of the belief that we cannot do better unless we are willing to break with tradition, to dispense with the past when it becomes more of an impediment than an inspiration, to change the structures when better options and opportunities come along.  The fact of the matter is that the Golden Dawn as a tradition may be a living one in its own way, but the exaltation of the particulars of the system to the level of religious writ runs counter to the very ethos upon which the Order of the Golden Dawn was founded.  The system is still a living one after a fashion, but it has become far too homogeneous in its ivory tower through slavish adherence to what has come before.  The membership of the original Order was composed of artists, poets, actors, visionaries, and revolutionaries.  They were at the vanguard of their time precisely because they were revolutionary in their mindset, and saw the opportunity to create a new vision of their own.  I wish that many of today’s Golden Dawn magicians shared that mindset.  

Alas, in my experience most of those who speak most authoritatively on behalf of the tradition do not.  And this is precisely why I am no longer an Adept in any Golden Dawn Order, though I continue to hold the tradition itself dear to my heart.

Before I joined the Golden Dawn, there was a time when I looked at the overwhelming complexity of the system and voiced the opinion that it could really use an enema.  Since then, I’ve found the beauty in the complexity because I’ve spent the time with it to learn and speak the language and found that it has given me great tools with which to express myself.  These days, I believe that the system could use a long-overdue update to its largely antiquated and ineffective pedagogy, and thankfully we’ve learned a little bit about what constitutes good pedagogy since the 19th century.  But I don’t believe it needs an enema.
Now, I simply believe that the Golden Dawn needs a good revolution.

Walking Through the Fire

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.

Magic, Pain, and Strength

I recently read Lev Grossman’s novel “The Magicians,” a book that’s been on my reading list for quite some time.  It’s an engaging story overall, but the most compelling aspect of it to me is that Grossman pulls back the fantasy curtain and creates a world in which magic does not solve the greatest problem:  that of the human condition.  Unlike the world of Harry Potter, there is no central villain to fight, no epic struggle to galvanize the protagonists and give them purpose.  In “The Magicians,” the struggle is with oneself, to find meaning.  The students who come to Brakebills to study magic are brilliant, alienated, and often socially challenged.  And magic doesn’t fix that.  If anything, it drives home the point all the more sharply:  no matter how much you may try to look for a change in circumstances in order to escape your ennui and give your life meaning, you cannot fix the brokenness within yourself by looking for a change in the outer circumstances of your life.

One quote from Henry Fogg, the dean of Brakebills, stuck with me even after I had finished reading the book:

I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength. 

Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.

This quote gave me a lot of food for thought.  Grossman’s magicians are products of an urban fantasy setting, but these words made me reflect on the relationship of real-life magicians to feelings of pain and alienation, and how we engage with those in our spiritual journey.

Most of us who become magicians, at least in the western industrialized world, probably did so because we felt alienated in some way from more traditional modes of religion–or at least from the mainstream society in which they have their roots.  To practice magic, to be an occultist, is inherently transgressive in our culture.  And being a magician isn’t like being gay, or transgender, or disabled:  it isn’t a marginalized identity into which one is thrust by accident of one’s birth or circumstances.  It isn’t even like being born into another religion, like Christianity or Islam.  While there are children who are now growing up in neopagan households, they are still relatively uncommon.  All of the magicians I know started out somewhere else, and chose that path somewhere along the way.

In order to willingly adopt that transgressive mantle, especially for those of us who remember the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, you have to be hurting for something.  Either you desperately want some connection to the divine (what Eliade referred to as “nostalgia for paradise”) and feel like the magical path is a significantly more viable way to obtain it than more “legitimate” or culturally sanctioned spiritual pursuits, or you’re already sufficiently alienated from the mainstream culture that the prospect of facing its scorn and/or censure doesn’t provide enough disincentive to sway you away from going down that path.  (It’s also worth noting that for some, particularly those in their teens and twenties, the ability to give mainstream society the middle finger by engaging in such transgression is a bonus rather than a hindrance.)  Either way you’re hurting, whether you’re jonesing for encounter with the divine or whether you’re wounded by societal alienation.

That said, I’m not convinced that we necessarily hurt more than others–that our yearning is greater than that of the mystic who seeks union with the divine via a different discipline, than that of the activist who sees the world’s ills and imagines a better society, than that of the person living in poverty who dreams of a life unthreatened by the Damoclean sword which threatens to drop between every paycheck.  The difference is that we believe we can do something more about our pain, that we can claim greater agency in the circumstances of our lives as magicians than we could otherwise.

Whether we perform magic to connect ourselves to the divine, to further our own evolution as human beings, to heal a sick relative, to land a new job, or to center ourselves in the middle of a turbulent day, we believe that we are taking the initiative to change our destiny.  By and large, I believe those who are drawn to magic like having a greater degree of control over their circumstances.  The goals are much the same as prayer, and the Venn diagrams certainly overlap, but for better or worse the magician reaches out and grabs for what they want rather than asking politely and waiting to receive.  But there has to be a want to reach out for, a desire to be fulfilled–and this is where the magician “feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it.”

So if the magician does in fact come to the magical path from a place of alienation or longing, do those emotions and that pain necessarily make him or her any stronger?  Well, like most things it’s probably a tradeoff.  But I’ll leave that analysis to my next post on the subject.

Hermeticism and Social Justice

Justice for Jamar marching in the street
Protesters marching on November 15, 2015 after the shooting of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis Police. Image credit: Fibonacci Blue on Flickr.

I live in the Minneapolis 4th Precinct, where for the last two weeks protesters have been marching in the streets and camping out to protest the fatal shooting of yet another unarmed black man by police.  Only two days prior to the death of Jamar Clark, bombs went off in Paris, killing 130 people. Government officials are raising hysteria about Syrian refugees and fostering xenophobia by warning of terrorists in disguise–never mind that the vetting process for Syrian refugees is intensely rigorous. These events are only the latest in a long list of such occurrences, many of which don’t even make the news because they do not directly affect white Americans.  Racial, ethnic, religious, and economic tension are running high across the world.  And especially here in Minneapolis, I’ve seen the same sentiments echoed multiple times on my Facebook wall:  “My city is broken, and I don’t know how to fix it.”  Many of my other friends have expressed similar dismay with regard to the state of the country, or of the world as a whole.
Let me say this up front:  I don’t know how to fix it either.  I tend to be distrustful of anyone who tries to convince others that they have easy answers to complex problems, and the problems don’t get any more complex than this.  But all of these recent events have caused me to reflect more on a theme I’ve been thinking about frequently of late:  the role of healing and social justice within Hermeticism, particularly in the Golden Dawn tradition.
To Cure the Sick, and that Gratis
The Inner Order of the Golden Dawn, the R.R. et A.C., is organized around the mythos of Rosicrucianism.  As an historical movement, the 17th century “Rosicrucian Enlightenment” was founded on the vision of sociopolitical revolution, tied to the Protestant Reformation in Europe.  On a doctrinal level, the Fama Fraternitatis, one of the two Rosicrucian manifestos, teaches that the original Rosicrucian brothers agreed “that none of them should profess any other thing than to cure the sick, and that gratis.”  This healing mission should not be underestimated, particularly given its centrality to the core doctrines around which the Golden Dawn has oriented itself.
If the number one pitfall of occultism is hubris and ego inflation, the second place award probably goes to self-absorbed isolationism.  And that’s understandable.  Most of us probably began pursuing esoteric spirituality because we were searching for something we weren’t getting in mainstream religious circles.  And while various forms of alternative spirituality are far more commonplace and accepted today than they were 20 years ago, they still aren’t exactly in the mainstream.  Those who aren’t solitary practitioners tend to cluster around small insular groups of like-minded people.  The net result of all this is that people turn their focus inward, on themselves and on their particular in-group, and suddenly everyone is playing the part of The Hermit in the tarot deck.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for hermiting in one’s spiritual development.  And given the cyclical, iterative nature of the alchemical path of self-transformation, we all need to hermit from time to time.  But if we never reach beyond that, if we never emerge from the transformation with something more to offer the world, I’m not sure that we’ve done ourselves much good in the process.
Physician, Heal Thyself
When it comes to the nature of humanity and of the world we live in, the Golden Dawn and the earlier Rosicrucian movement whose spirit it strives to perpetuate both touch on a much larger principle–one which is shared by many faiths and philosophies, and which people pursue through many different means.  It is the idea that the world and the people in it are imperfect and broken in some way, and that it is our ethical and spiritual responsibility as human beings to be custodians of and caregivers to this broken world.  In our own small ways, in our everyday lives, we pick up the shattered pieces and help put them back together.  But we too are broken, and we must patch ourselves together in order to carry out that work effectively.  As my friend Eric V. Sisco is fond of saying, we need to put on our own oxygen masks first before assisting others.
In the Outer Order of the Golden Dawn, putting on that psychospiritual oxygen mask is the primary goal.  The initiate is symbolically separated into his or her component parts, and one by one these elemental portions of the self are purified and perfected.  The Inner Order is about recombining those separate elements into a perfected self, and about offering up that self in service and sacrifice to others.  Yes, the path is about self-transformation.  As broken creatures, our spiritual journey is one of a return to wholeness, which is also a reunion with the divine source from whence we come.  But as above, so below:  the individual and the divine are inextricably intertwined, and they meet and mingle in the world we inhabit every day.  We journey toward perfection, of ourselves and of the world around us.  Just as we aspire to transcend the limitations of our humanity, so too do we aspire to transform the world in which we live to make it greater.  The inner and outer aspects of this transformation are necessarily connected, and I do not see how one can authentically pursue one goal without pursuing the other.

Let Your Light Shine

The Great Work that lies at the heart of Hermeticism (and which arguably forms the crux of western esotericism as a whole) is the relentless quest for spiritual growth, for the perfection of the self.  It is the pursuit of self-discovery, of divine knowledge, of the everyday alchemy by which we become better, kinder, more compassionate, and more well-adapted human beings.  For those of us who follow that path, we bear the responsibility of doing our best to act out of empathy and loving-kindness, and to let these traits be a light to others–that they too may perhaps take up their lamp and shine it into the darkness, repairing the broken world one person and one act at a time.

“Muggle Jobs” and the Prosperity Theology of Occultism

Occult blogger (and fellow Minneapolitan) Scott Stenwick recently posted an article weighing in on the curious disdain that some people in the esoteric community seem to have toward magicians holding down day jobs.  For those who haven’t encountered this phenomenon, the argument goes that if a person were really a good magician, they would be able to magic themselves into enough riches that they don’t need to work for a living.

As Scott points out, the idea that an author can make a full-time living from publishing in a niche market such as esotericism is a relatively naive one.  Since he skillfully debunks the idea from a feasibility standpoint, I’d like to focus instead on where the idea comes from in the first place and why it’s wrong-headed in its foundational assumptions.

The core feature of this viewpoint appears to be that a good magician should be able to focus on his or her magic, make a living at it, and not have to work a boring “muggle job” in the mundane world.  But as Scott observes in his post, “Promoting magical products like books is a job.”  The underlying assumption of the position is that spending eight or more hours a day at a day job is a distraction from one’s spiritual work, and that making a living from one’s magic enables the magician to concentrate on the Work of inner development.  I suspect that none of the people who espouse this viewpoint have ever worked in a “creative profession,” since they seem to lack any concept of how difficult it is to make a living in one.  That said, trying to make a full-time living from one’s writing or other esoteric work does allow a person to develop a great many skills.  Those skills cover a wide diversity of areas such as writing, marketing, networking, and sales.

Notice that the above list does not include “actually doing magic.”

If anything, I would tend to argue that trying to make a living from one’s magic runs the risk of severely detracting from one’s magical work.  I grew up in a generation that was very much sold on the idea that when it comes to career, you should do something you love.  What I’ve instead discovered in my own life is that there is no quicker way to kill your love of something than to do it for a living.  When what you love becomes tied to your livelihood, when it becomes a requirement for your sustenance, it becomes a chore.  And few people enjoy doing chores.  (Those that do, please contact me–you can come over and clean my house, it’ll be a great time for us both.)

Moreover, while I certainly don’t think it’s vulgar or inappropriate for a person to make money in the esoteric field from writing, teaching classes, performing services, or what have you, when you try to turn that into a full-time venture it necessarily means that the focus is no longer primarily on the quality and intrinsic value of the material being offered.  You’ve got to sell something to pay the bills, which means that money takes the front seat.  And when that happens, when spirituality becomes commodified–that’s when things take a turn for the vulgar.  Frankly, I trust a magician who has a day job a lot more than one whose livelihood depends on selling me something.

The idea that a successful magician shouldn’t need to hold down a mundane job also runs counter to centuries of history.  Within the Golden Dawn, William Wynn Westcott was a coroner and Robert Woodman was a surgeon.  Samuel Mathers was the only one of the three who didn’t consistently hold down a day job, but he managed this by living off of Annie Horniman’s generosity–a situation that ended up creating a great deal of acrimony in their relationship when he kept continually squeezing her for funds while seemingly disinterested in producing any of his own.  Let’s keep in mind as well that while Mathers was undoubtedly a brilliant magician, he was also arguably a narcissistic autocrat who was largely responsible for tearing the original Order apart.  Somehow I don’t think his is the example we should be emulating.  Stretching back to earlier history, although magic and science commingled during the Renaissance in ways that are foreign to contemporary western culture, even the luminaries of that era held down mundane jobs to pay the bills.  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was a soldier, a university lecturer, and a physician.  John Dee was a scientist and mathematician.  Robert Fludd was a medical doctor.  The same trend exists into the modern day, for magicians both within and outside the narrow province of Hermeticism.  Aleister Crowley represents one of the very few exceptions to the rule, but he was independently wealthy–and much like Mathers, while Crowley was certainly a magical genius, he didn’t exactly set a great example for others.

So where does this idea come from, then?  Though he doesn’t explore the concept further, I think Scott hits the nail on the head when he says, “It’s not necessarily the case that a successful magician has to be rich. I’m not pitching some sort of twisted Prosperity Gospel here.”  While most people who espouse a disdain for magicians holding down day jobs would probably consider themselves far removed from the likes of Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, I think this idea comes out of the exact same roots that spawned the prosperity theology found in certain modes of evangelical Christianity.

The idea that spiritual devotion should translate into material success is hardly new, though it is almost a uniquely modern and American phenomenon.  Rising out of the 1890s and hitting its stride in the early 20th century, the same “New Thought” movement that spun off into Christian Science and the more materialistically-inclined Christian prosperity gospel also insinuated its way into certain forms of occult thought–thanks in large part to The Kybalion, which found more purchase in Hermetic circles than it ever had a right to.  While the intellectual legacy of The Kybalion exists most clearly these days in vaguely new-agey self help books like The Secret and The Law of Attraction, its subtle tendrils still surface in attitudes such as the one currently under discussion.

In the end, the view that a “successful” magician shouldn’t need to hold down a day job succumbs to the same foibles of prosperity theology, by virtue of the fact that both ideas share a common root.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to my day job.

Perfectionism, Fear, and Blogging (in which we go meta)

Blogging is difficult for me, especially when it comes to doing so on a regular basis.  I’ve generally told myself that this is simply because I am a Busy Adult With Many Important Things To Do, and at least to some extent lately this is true enough:  I’ve had a lot of huge things going on (all good, thankfully!) in pretty much every area of my life over the last year, and those have claimed a large degree of my time.

But these are special occurrences, and the truth of the matter is that my difficulty writing is anything but.  Upon digging beneath the superficial excuses I make for myself, the reality, I find, is that my difficulty in writing largely stems from two perniciously interrelated factors:  perfectionism on the one hand, and fear of vulnerability on the other.

I am an academic by training, and my first language when it comes to writing is that of the research paper.  Blogging is a rather different type of writing, but every time I begin to type a post it seems to end up veering decidedly toward the tone and scope of writing that one would find in a journal.  (My two-part exposition on the definition of magic, one of the few posts I’ve managed to complete for this particular blog thus far, is a prime example of the trend.)  In part, this is because I want to explore topics in depth, and it’s difficult to do that in a shorter format such as a blog post.  In part, it’s because many occult practitioners tend to embrace mythos so enthusiastically that they at times gleefully throw intellectual rigor out the window–and I have very strong feelings about not sacrificing historical or factual accuracy even as I plunge myself into the stream of myth and magic.  In part, it’s simply a matter of habit:  the research paper is what I’m used to, and that’s how my writing most naturally flows.  However, there is another part that stems from fear.  Fear of leaving something important out.  Fear of not being perceived as credible.  Fear of not having anything worthwhile to contribute.  And, most especially, fear of writing from a place that is personal and confessional, that requires me to bare a part of myself.

Again, I’m an academic when it comes to my approach to writing.  While discussion of theory, of symbolism, of ritual–of all the intellectual, social, psychological, and historical dimensions of spirituality–comes naturally to me, I am unaccustomed to writing from a personal, confessional standpoint. I do not, generally speaking, write about my own experiences with spirituality, with its meaning in my life.  And yet it is these experiences that first kindled both my personal and my academic interests in religion.  Growing up in social surroundings that were largely unfriendly toward any mode of religion that departed from conservative Christianity, I found myself unpopular among my peers in my early teens even for espousing the liberal Christian views that I held at the time.  I learned from these experiences that it was not safe to share my personal spiritual views with others, that doing so would be met with censure and scorn.  And yet this spiritual drive was a huge part of my life, something that demanded engagement and expression.  Given that I engage with ideas and emotions most easily by talking about them with others, remaining entirely silent was an unpalatable option at best.

And so from that point forward, I did not make myself vulnerable by discussing my own spirituality. Instead I danced about it. I studied the subjects that are most meaningful to me, but I rendered them safe to discuss by talking about them in the abstract, in the impersonal sense. In reality, they are anything but abstract or impersonal for me. They are, as Paul Tillich would say, matters of ultimate concern in my life.  And as long as I continue to sterilize my writing in this way, to remove any trace of myself as a participant–as one who walks in the myth, who encounters the sacred, who prays and worships and weaves magic–then I will never write anything other than research papers.  I will continue to sacrifice the voice of the poet for that of the literary critic.  While both voices are significant in different ways, the literary critic is in the end rarely engaging on any widespread level.  Critique is important, but in the end it must have something of substance upon which to reflect.  My challenge lies in getting past the critique to the substance.

So there you have it.  With this post, I’m issuing myself a challenge to stretch beyond the bounds of my comfort, to relinquish the safety of the impersonal and make myself vulnerable in order to share myself more fully with those around me.  And hopefully, in the process, to make my writing more frequent, more digestible, and more engaging.  Hold on, folks: this just got personal.

Religious Experiences, Brain Imaging, and Truth Claims

Several months ago, Gizmodo reported that scientists have discovered what happens in the brain when people have out-of-body experiences.  In short, a pair of researchers used fMRI scanning to discern the changes in brain activity that occur when a particular test subject initiates an out-of-body experience, which she claims to be able to do at will.

The application of brain imaging to religious experience is not new, and the neuroscientific study of religion is even older: scientists have been using fMRI technology to examine what occurs in the brain during “peak experiences” (to use Maslow’s term) for at least 15 years, and were using EEGs to study the associated changes in brain waves since the middle of the 20th century.  In fact, around the turn of the millenium this topic seemed to have a brief moment of popular interest, with several books published on the subject that inevitably drew conclusions about the implications of our ability to observe the brain states associated with religious experience.  It is worth noting that these conclusions differed significantly from one another.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Gizmodo article draws its own conclusions about the validity of out-of-body experiences–and it is these conclusions with which I take issue. The second half of the article asks whether the test subject’s experiences are “real” or not. The author states that the experience “is real in the sense that she’s actually experiencing it. The brain scans show that she’s going through what she’s claiming. But that doesn’t mean that her ‘soul’ is getting out of her body. This is not an astral trip, like those described by mystics. There’s no paranormal activity of any kind.”

It is tempting for some to conclude that because we can observe a phenomenon using the methods of science, there is nothing about the phenomenon that is paranormal or otherwise outside the realm of scientific inquiry.  Such a conclusion, however, is deeply problematic and in the final analysis unsupportable.  Let us assume for the sake of argument that a person does have some sort of spiritual faculty that transcends the body.  Let us also say that this person experiences what they perceive to be an astral trip, an out-of-body experience.  Finally, let us assume that this is in fact an occasion in which their spirit or center of consciousness releases from their body and perceives independently from their physical senses.  Regardless of the underlying metaphysics, the fact remains that if we do have a spirit, while we exist as human beings that spirit is joined to a corporeal body.  I would argue that all of our experiences, including spiritual ones, must therefore be mediated through our brains and their inherent faculties.  Why would spiritual experiences not be reflected in the activity of our brains?

The conclusion that the author of the article arrives at is predicated upon the key assumption that the body is the body and the spirit is the spirit, and never the twain shall meet.  I know few if any people that believe in the existence of a spirit or soul who subscribe to this notion, at least as it pertains to living human beings.  For those who assume the existence of such a spirit, it generally seems uncontroversial that the physical actions we take–prayer, meditation, ritual, or what have you–affect our spiritual states.  Similarly, for those who believe in magic, the power of prayer, divine intervention, or some other ability of the spirit to affect the physical world, the causative relationship flows in the other direction as well.

The only way in which one can make a valid claim that the ability to observe a neurological change in response to a spiritual experience disproves any spiritual or paranormal dimension to that experience is if one commits to a philosophical position in which the body and the spirit have no ability to affect each other.  This is hardly a necessary position, much less a popular one.  Such a position is also well outside the empirical boundaries of scientific investigation.

So, what are we to make of this?  While the Gizmodo author’s conclusions are untenable, we also cannot determine that the test subject’s experiences are therefore necessarily paranormal in nature.  To be honest, there are few conclusions we can draw.  But this in itself is a valuable lesson!  A healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing.  It keeps us from believing claims uncritically, causes us to investigate our world more deeply, and prevents us from sending money to people on the internet who claim to be Nigerian princes.  But skepticism isn’t merely applicable to spiritual or paranormal claims.  Wielded properly, it must also question the presuppositions of those who deny such claims, and suspend judgement on a given issue when no compelling case presents itself.  While science may be able to comment on the empirical components of paranormal claims, it is inherently unable to comment on the metaphysics thereof.  It is perfectly reasonable to conjecture and philosophize as to what our ability to observe the neural dimensions of religious experience may imply, but it is not reasonable to make scientific truth claims based on these conjectures.

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