In my article, "The Role of Identity Within Magic," one of the readers expressed her own experiences with magicians as being people who talk about magical orders and oaths and call each other frater and rave about finding parking spaces. She also noted that in terms of improving the quality of life in this world, it did not seem that magicians were doing much. Another reader believed that the practice of magic was mainly done by people who were power hungry or trying to fill a void within their lives. Yet another reader spoke scathingly of the words magic, magician, shaman, arguing that there was a guru complex associated with these terms and that magic is an archaic and out of date word that shouldn't be used to describe the connections one cultivates with others or him or herself.
None of these critiques are invalid. In fact, they are indicative of two problems that the occult subculture faces, but which it rarely addresses, namely the cultural stigma associated with the term magic (or magick if you must) and the inability to cohesively explain and demonstrate the benefits of including a practice of magic in a person's life. Let's explore each problem in further depth, before I point the way to a possible solution.
Stereotypes about magic
On any cultural level, other than the occult subculture, the term magic has a lot of cultural stigma associated with it. This cultural stigma takes three forms, and none of the forms are entirely accurate, but nonetheless they are prevalent because of a simple fact that many magicians would prefer to ignore. The term magic (or magick) has never been rehabilitated. And why is that so important?
Because a certain magician once wrote that he would set out to rehabilitate magic (or as he coined it: Magick). That magician's name is Aleister Crowley and he is probably the only occult magician that has any real claim to fame, though most of his fame is really notoriety. Crowley failed to rehabilitate magic in any substantial way. The most he did was what previous magicians did, which was write about it and spread the relevant literature to interested parties. To this day, there are people, myself included, who write about magic and yet it is still not rehabilitated. It may never be rehabilitated, at least within contemporary culture, and if it is rehabilitated, it may involve using new terminology to convey the concepts that are structured into various paradigms of magical practice.
First Stigma: Magic is practiced by people who feel powerless
The first form of cultural stigma that surrounds magic comes from academia. Until relatively recently (the last two decades), the majority of academic works on magic and the occult have usually depicted magic as something performed by ignorant primitives who aren't "civilized" enough to know better or something done by eccentric "civilized" people who feel powerless and resort to using supernatural forces to gain control of their environment. Recent scholarship has gotten better, partially because there are pagans and occultists in academia who are raising their own voices, and partially because those researchers who don't identify as pagans or occultists are willing to acknowledge their biases and consider the possibility that magic could actually work and be utilized for a variety of reasons beyond an attempt to control one's environment or situations. One reason, as an example, is the choice to use magical techniques to achieve an altered state of consciousness that allows the magician to connect with the universe in a fundamentally different way than everyday consciousness allows (more on this later).
What must be realized about the academic coverage of magic is that such coverage is usually situated in a Western-centric perception of the universe. For instance, the argument that magic is only performed by ignorant savages is certainly rooted in Western Imperialism and the belief that the so-called primitives have an unsophisticated and irrational understanding of the world and so resort to magic as a way of controlling their environment. Did these vaunted academics consider the possibility that magic might have other uses, that it might for instance provide a common bonding experience for the community, as well as a means of focusing the intent of the community? From the writings I've perused, it seems the academics never considered this a possibility until very recently. (For a much more comprehensive examination of this issue, please refer to the two chapters on definitions of magic that I wrote in Multi-Media Magic.)
The claim that magicians only practice magic to achieve a sense of power that is lacking from their lives is a claim that can easily be applied to any religious zealot as well: If I pray hard enough and long enough, God will grant me what I desire. This desire to claim power is based in a concept called magical thinking, which argues that by appealing to external powers the magician or religious person can somehow obtain control over his or her immediate reality, without having to lift a hand in the process.
While it is true that magicians may work with spiritual entities and deities, creating a mutual relationship of respect where all parties benefit, it's also true that any sense of power the magician has ultimately comes from mastering his/her internal reality. The magician achieves true power when s/he no longer reacts, and instead consciously evaluates a situation and makes a conscious choice based on that evaluation. That is real magic (and not something every magician, let alone every person has mastered).
Second Stigma: Magic is evil
The second stereotype of cultural stigma surround magic is the belief that magic is satanic or evil or that magicians are out to become gurus. This stereotype also points to the idea that people get involved in magic because they feel powerless. As someone who was once a born again Christian, and left Christianity because of the pervasive ignorance and intolerance that exists in the more extreme versions of it, I got involved in magic because I wanted to answer the questions about life and reality. I hadn't gotten answers from the Christian god, and when I found about magic, I realized that here was a system of methodologies that could be used by anyone to actively work toward answering the questions a person might have about reality and life.
Magic didn't promise all the answers on a golden platter. Nor did it promise gobs and gobs of power. If anything, my own journey as a magician has involved lots of hard work, the facing of many internal demons and issues (and resolution of said demons and issues), and the humbling realizations of just how little control I may have over my immediate environment, as well as the very empowering realizations of how much control I have over my internal beliefs and how I choose to act in a situation. The practice of magic taught me to discipline and apply myself to what I really wanted to achieve in life, as well as providing me a variety of techniques I could use to alter my consciousness, heal myself, change negative behaviors into positive ones, and in some cases increase the possibility of an opportunity working out.
Nonetheless, magic isn't a cure all. It doesn't solve every problem and can sometimes complicate issues. And the real test of magic is not seeing how much power you can acquire. The real test involves learning to be responsible with the power you do have, which is the power of your actions and responses. And remember, magic is only one avenue of expression for those actions and responses.
As for magicians trying to become gurus…just about every magician I've met has had anything but that particular interest in mind. Do you know how much work it takes to become a guru? Not only that but you have to keep the Guru vibe going and make sure you never make a mistake. No thanks. Being a guru is a thankless task. Whatever perks one might get for doing it, s/he is trapped by the very image s/he creates in order to obtain followers. The true magician doesn't need to be a guru and is much more satisfied developing his/her own spiritual journeys.
Third Stigma: Magic is useless
The third and final stigma is the argument that magic is useless. This stigma is connected to the second problem that magicians face, namely: What is the benefit of doing magic? As one reader put it, all she seemed to hear about was the various oaths and magical orders different magicians belonged to and how impressed they were about finding parking spaces. If all a magician can is find a parking space, you have to wonder if magic is all that effective, because anyone can find a parking space. Frankly, I don't feel that finding a parking space is an indicative of a magical achievement and if that's all a magician is boasting about, s/he really needs to get a life and needs to spend a lot more time practicing magic and a lot less time talking about it. Likewise, talking about what magical order you belong to doesn't say much about the benefit of magic.
I don't think that magic is an archaic word or concept. The fact that even in the most "sophisticated" cultures there are people still practicing magic speaks to its relevance. But the question does arise as to what the benefit of practicing magic is. And unfortunately a lot of the focus in magical practice is primarily on obtaining short term goals and material needs, as opposed to focusing on more long term goals. When the magician is focused on getting his/her next parking space, or even the next job, then it's rather hard to determine exactly how magic plays a role in obtaining these things or what the overall benefit of doing magic is, other than creating some kind of placebo effect. While the magician can claim that magic has been employed to get that parking space or job, it can just as easily be said that the magician got these things through coincidence or having the right set of skills.
On the other hand, when the magician obtains a result which clearly involves the creation of a reality out of improbable circumstances, that situation can be pointed to as an example of magic working to the benefit of the magician. Even so, usually such situations seem to focus on addressing the short term material needs of the magician, as opposed to doing anything more substantial or contributory to anyone besides the magician. Little wonder that magic is considered useless, while magicians are sneered at.
The lust for results is the undoing of the magician. While sometimes practicing magic to address a problem that has occurred recently is a very necessary activity, it should not be the only activity or reason for doing magic. Nor, for that matter, should the activity only focus on the material gain of the magician. Instead of summoning a Goetic demon to get a girl or a job, one might wonder what would happen if the magician chose to work with the Goetic demon to achieve a better awareness of his or her weaknesses, or to learn new skills that s/he can use to navigate life better.
The Benefit of Magic and a future direction
We can only provide a solution to the three stigmas I mentioned above when we answer: What is the benefit of doing magic? The benefit of doing magic isn't merely the acquisition of material goods or advantageous opportunities (though these can be useful in their own right). The benefit of magic is that it provides the practitioner a methodology for interacting with reality, possibility, and his/her own conscious awareness of the space s/he travels through during these interactions. When a person can utilize magical processes to recognize the ways s/he is sabotaging herself and can then make changes and become a healthier person as well as model those changes to others then the real benefit of magic is realized. Magic is the harnessing of willful intention and conscious attention to change the self's identity and role within the universe and recognize the potential to be part of something larger than just him/herself.
And what is larger than the magician? It is not society or culture which is reflections and illusions; something a magician is a part of and affects the sense of self everyday, but nonetheless is just a matrix holding us to certain patterns and behaviors that entrap us far more than they free us. What is larger is the universe itself…and when the magician can recognize how s/he is just a small part of the universe itself, a cell in the body of the universe, but one that nonetheless either transmits healthy information or unhealthy information, then the magician might realize that the benefit of magic is the evolution of the person and the role that person plays in the evolution of the universe. Society and culture are illusions because they are transitory. What they reveal is the overall health and integration that people have with each other and the universe. This sense of health and integration is played out in how we treat each other and how we treat this planet. Magic is just one methodology among many for helping us achieve a better awareness of our place in the universe as well as how we can change that place, for better or worse. And it must be understood that our place in the universe is small…we are not so significant that if we were gone the universe would collapse. But we are significant enough in the sense that our actions and choices play a role in not merely how we live our lives, but also how we pass on that living to our descendents and to the universe we live in. Every action, every choice is an imprint. They are tiny actions, tiny choices, seemingly insignificant in and of themselves, but the repetition of pattern provides strength in numbers and the consequences can be very hard to undo. I realized some few years ago that magic wasn't doing me much good if my life was headed on a collision course of bad decisions and worse consequences. I realized that true magic wasn't about reactively doing magic to solve a problem or get a quick fix.
True magic was proactively choosing to change, to recognize the root of my problems and change those problems, while also examining various areas of my life and choosing to do something about them instead of just stumbling along, waiting for whatever might happen next. Magic was spending a year dedicated to working with the element of Earth and consequently learning a lot about how to handle finances effectively as well as how to show others that it could be done. Magic was spending a year focused on love and seeing all the unhealthy patterns of love in my life and then making changes, becoming healthier in how I related to love, while also learning a lot about what this culture doesn't really show with any kind of relationship: The intimacy of connection with each other, and with our environment. Magic has been doing the internal work, the meditation, the mindful awareness, and the changing of old patterns into new healthier ones, so I don't need to do so many overt acts of magic to solve the latest crisis in my life. And magic, for me, has always involved learning as much as possible about a wide variety of fields of study such as semiotics, linguistics, multimodality, psychology, neuroscience, etc, and then taking that information and applying it to my spiritual practices so that I could refine how I did magic, while also showing myself and others what it could be used for.
For magic to be relevant and significant and of any real benefit to us, it must be balanced with an awareness of other disciplines. The magician needs to be a renaissance person, one who has knowledge on a variety of disciplines and the practices those disciplines contain. S/he must also be able to connect all of those practices together and create an effective synthesis of principles for promoting effective changes, i.e. changes that have the potential to benefit all as opposed to or only a few. Henry Agrippa wrote in The Three Books of Occult Philosophy that the magician who only practiced magic was a dull person who did not really understand magic. To understand magic involved learning about other disciplines and applying those practices to his or her life and the lives of others. Magicians in general need to return to this approach to magic, instead of focusing on hyper-individuation as a display of will. The hyper-individualized person cannot connect with anyone else, because s/he fails to understand or acknowledge anyone else. By learning about a variety of disciplines and also experiencing a variety of people and the struggles they deal with, the magician can begin to consider how magic can be applied to the benefit of all and focus on doing so. Until such a time as that occurs magic will never be rehabilitated. It will instead be the masturbatory wanking of trying to get results, or showing your true will off, or the boasting of finding a parking space. There's not much change in any of that and it doesn't do much beyond providing people yet another way to re-act instead of consciously act. For magic to be rehabilitated and beneficial, we must change our way of thinking about it and implementing it, moving away from a model of self gratification, and moving toward a model of conscious awareness and connection with each other and with this universe we live in. When we can do that and share what we develop with others, so that all can benefit, then we will see real change, real magic, and realize its benefit in our lives.
Image by Bohman, courtesy of Creative Commons license.