Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Few Words of Caution.

I apparently have to say this every five posts, but the best place to begin is with this:
I am not a “scholar,” “expert,” or “teacher.” I do not claim to be an all-powerful “Adept,” nor shall I do so. Plenty other magicians are happy to foist bullshit titles on me, but I'll gleefully continue to reject them for as long as I have to. This blog does not represent my authority on any matters; indeed, I have more questions than I often have answers.

I don't see this as problematic. I actually see it as emblematic of the situation that most magicians will find themselves in after more than a few years of practice. To briefly quote the long dead Samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo:
“In one’s life there are levels in the pursuit of study. In the lowest level, a person studies but nothing comes of it, and he feels that both he and others are unskillful. At this point he is worthless. In the middle level he is still useless but is aware of his own insufficiencies and can also see the insufficiencies of others. In a higher level he has pride concerning his own ability, rejoices in praise from others, and laments the lack of ability in his fellows. This man has worth. In the highest level a man has the look of knowing nothing.”
Perhaps the most glaring insufficiency in the occult community is focused around charismatic leaders and authors. To a certain degree, we all encourage this. When we discover someone doing work we haven't tried, or find worthwhile, we plug them and their works. We praise them for stepping beyond the boundaries we've set up for ourselves, and for helping us to see more clearly the matters that we have left out. Perhaps this statement is merely projection on my part, because I certainly do it.

At the same time, we also have a great number of fellow practitioners who have been exposed to a lamentably limited set of occult ideas and works and confuse those works with the vast, sprawling, nigh-limitless field of information available to all. When these individuals see what we're doing, they extend those same praises to others or may adopt wholesale a rather limited set of ideologically loaded suppositions and wall themselves off from the rest of that information.

One does not need to look far, for example, to find “Grimoire Traditionalists” who have adopted a total of seven books and a few essays as representing the sum-total of European magick to date. There are similar problems in the witchcraft community, where particular systems of thoughts are seen as embodying the sum total of potential “witchcraft” related materials. This is somewhat understandable: when presented with the far-ranging scope of potential actions, rituals, ideas and beliefs, it can be helpful to narrow down the spectrum of information until it becomes a coherent and worthwhile working product.

The unfortunate byproduct of the problem, however, is that plenty of these individuals – whether driven by their passion for their experiences, or their need to be seen as authoritative representations of their chosen means of working – can beguile newcomers and beginners. Additionally, once a given set of ideas is seen as being “traditional” or “working and worthwhile” there is a game of telephone that occurs within the publishing industry. Ideas are pilfered from favored sources, reiterated, and then re-published to such an extent that today one can hardly even discuss witchcraft on plenty of forums without having to address the validity of the so-called “Three-Fold Law,” for example. Additionally, these ideas, beliefs, and tactics are extended even into areas of occult philosophy and magical practice where they are foreign or perhaps even alien. The framework of QBL, for example, is used to analyze rituals of the PGM that significantly predate it. This is not to say that someone primarily schooled in Western QBL, or even the Golden Dawn system of magick cannot or should not use those rituals. However, occasionally such an analysis is treated as being “correct” and then the information – some of which may be wrong – gets repeated. I have been guilty of this myself, and so any finger-pointing the reader may detect is applicable to myself as much as anyone else.*

Finally, there is the matter of our own internal bias or potential for lapsing into cognitive bias. This is, again, something that is not limited to a select crowd individuals. It is a universal issue, and one we all have to contend with. A number of individuals are convinced that adopting a “peer review” style process, akin to what happens in the Academic community, will solve this issue. I am rather suspicious of this idea, especially given the sheer authority worship that exists in a number of occult, neo-pagan, and witch circles. Even when criticism of certain authors deemed authoritative is leveled, there are a number of zealots that gather around such individuals and will turn on those who are critical and hound them.

Finally there is the issue of the subjectivity of magical experiences. All of the experiences we have are filtered through our personal psyche, and how we process the experience is also filtered through our understanding of both what we've performed and our internal associations and previous experiences. It is very easy, for example, to try and evoke a spirit and have the ritual fail to meet one's expectations (and when does that happen, really?) and then conclude that “the angels” don't “like” you. The flaw may in fact be something else entirely: perhaps the environment was not hospitable for a conductive evocation; or perhaps one accidentally made what appears on the surface to be a minor mistake, or perhaps one's confidence and Will faltered. Each of these potentials may affect the ritual and the experience. This is a major reason why so many of us keep magical journals with as accounts and results of the ritual detailed as precisely as possible,** and invariable return to see what our thoughts, experiences, and perhaps even ritual errors were later in an attempt to perform rituals that work out better at a later date. But even keeping a journal and analyzing it will not keep one from falling into deep-seated internal habits and belief formations.

Having said the above, there are two responses that fall on the extremes of an apparent false dichotomy that often occur:
1. “If we open up the subjective can of worms, people will start performing rituals to gain the power of Lord Voldamort,*** and acting like there is no difference between that and Gods!”

First of all: people have been practicing pop-magick or magickal practices that coincide with popular culture for a very long time, and in plenty of cases it has lead to absolutely amazing experiences and rituals that are unfortunately often ignored today on the basis of their popular origins. If one prefers to practice something else, that is a personal purview and one which has almost no bearing on the discussion. What you've basically brought up is your own personal bias, and you need to acknowledge your bias and passion and then ask the question of the individual you're looking at will even be attracted to the work that you are deeply passionate about. Expecting someone practicing thoroughly modern – or even postmodern – to conform to your bias, or insisting that they have no place is not much different from when magical practitioners previously snubbed their noses at lower class magical practices. Hence we can see almost a hundred years of commentary from middle-to-upper class practitioners of Theurgy discussing how they've been “trained” by their contemporary practitioners and simultaneously snubbing their noses at everything from folk magick to consider folklore and how it ties in to magickal practices. They represent the “Zealots:” those whose passion for their systems, experiences, and outlooks have over-ruled their capacity to understand what they are looking at. Even today we can find plenty of examples of such “Elite” leanings and postures... Sometimes from the most bright in their particular fields.

2. “Your Gods are just thoughtforms anyway, and so I don't have to give a shit about what you say!”

My personal favorite comment from the Chaos Crowd, who can now condescendingly describe all practices of magick that they personally aren't interested in as “bullshit.” Again, just like the above, this sort of commentary reflects the bias of the individual. You aren't interested in other practices, and can use art or other elements to get results that you find inspiring? That's awesome. Now remember that not everyone feels the same way, and stop putting up walls between different strands of practice and acting like you're superior to everyone. You aren't, and you're just as capable of being full of crap as the nose-snubbing elitists. In fact, what you're doing is reinforcing their position by adopting your own variant on it. Again: it is easy to lapse into. Plenty of the debates in the last year in various sections of the occult and neo-pagan community have fallen into it.

The most distressing aspect of the above is that it keeps people from actually practicing magick. They feel pressured to join various sides and factions and then adopt whole-sale their style of discourse and their intellectual and spiritual leanings. In part, this is due to group dynamics. But in part, this is also due to the way we treat authorities. Additionally, those witnessing our in-fighting may decide that they should practice nothing at all - because we're all full of crap. I can't necessarily fault the latter, but it certainly is part of what distresses me.

So why have I said all of this, and perhaps even re-opened a can of worms that should be left shut for a bit longer, if not forever?

In part is due to the fact that a few of those I've been discussing practices with of late have confused my approach to different subjects as being “actually ancient magick.” It isn't. Some of the ideas and places I take a lot of joy from are taken from archaic source material, scholarly texts, and the like. But plenty of other places I've poached my approach from are modern, and there is no dissecting the time period I live in from my personal outlook. I prefer a “history-friendly” approach, but I don't feel compelled to limit myself to historical sources. At the same time: I want to understand those sources better, and that requires a great deal more reading and research than many people feel inclined to do.

I don't have children; in fact, I don't really consider having children a goal. Additionally, I'm not terribly interested in buying a house or making the extreme material gains that would normally lead one to procure a professional job and focus themselves solely on it until those goals are achieve. This leaves me with an enormous amount of time that would otherwise be occupied to test out rituals, read dozens of books (sometimes simultaneously), and otherwise focus on my personal passions. For plenty of individuals this lack of time constraints does not even exist. I understand that, and I sympathize with them: when I was a full time student and working part time at Taco Bell, I had to make a great many choices that limited my social interactions with people, and instead focused on finding time to go out and practice. Often this was done in the middle of the night, on the edge of town, and (during the winter) plagued by pervasive fog. Later, after I quit that shit job and got a better one,**** I did most of my practical work while roommates were away at work and I had the apartment or house to myself. These days I have so much free time that I waste plenty of it. It happens.

The last two paragraphs may sound like they don't coincide with my above commentary, but they absolutely do. Consistent practice and the capacity to analyze what you've done and plan to do takes time, and it is precisely time that keeps a lot of folks from practicing or experiencing as much as they would prefer. Plenty of individuals find ways to make time, but plenty of others are forced to admit that they simply can't do that. If you have four kids and a mortgage to pay, you are far less likely to have the time to make a magic mirror, learn a system of mirror magick, and then call up anything than if you are young and willing to make a few decisions that may limit your social interactions, or cut down on the amount of time you spend at work. That being said: you can still take 15 to 30 minutes to meditate every day, or reach three pages of a book. You may not end up being an “Adept with Superpowers,” but you may also learn the skills to be able re-orient your schedule to be more appealing to consistent practice.

I often feel that it is combination of individuals with realistic time constraints
and the general love of celebrities in various neo-Pagan and occult circles that creates the superficial atmosphere that occasionally permeates discussions on matters relating to magickal or spiritual practices.

It is much easier to prop up a given celebrity and their views of magick, practice out of one to ten books, and then pretend that you have learned everything you will ever need... Than it is to practice consistently, experiment with a variety of sources, and try to learn as much about the underpinning of those sources as possible. When the celebrity issue intrudes in the picture, a further issue of distortion occurs because those with limited time and energy – having gained cherished experience and being passionate about it – feel compelled to defend whatever assertion is made by given individuals, even if they may be wrong. It is, from my perspective, completely understandable. It is also unfortunate.

The only thing I can say is this: the field of practice is immense, and the potential for utility is unending. We can find magick practiced all over the world, in a variety of ways, and from a variety of outlooks. If we in the west are ever going to be able to appreciate this fact then the first thing we need to do is acknowledge the fact, and then do our best to learn what we can in the allotted time that we have. But the first thing we need to do is to stop limiting the scope of our outlook. Any time one finds themselves saying: “_____ group of practitioners is ______,” and then demeaning them based on a profoundly limited perspective there are bound to be aspects that they have misunderstood. I think disagreeing about standpoint is okay, and even possibly helpful if the discussions aren't oriented around flimsy suppositions and continued insistence on the “one true path” of practice. The only thing that does is create stagnation, and doom us to a single monolithic outlook. It is antithetical to the continued development of our capacity to learn what came before us, what exists around us, and how we can better interact with similar individuals with different practices.

Two blog entries helped inspire this one: Sannion's Sarah Iles Johnston turns her scholarly eye toward the contemporary Hellenic polytheist community and Mr. Harold Roth's On Not Knowing Everything. I enjoyed both, not to mention Ms. Johnston's paper greatly.

Be seeing you,

[EDIT]: Lots of typos. Too lazy to correct them all.. Feel free to ask if something is confusing, or just rant about how I'm evil. I'm getting pretty used to the later, at this point. LOL.

* These are general examples, and not meant to be taken as things I see routinely. Except the Three-Fold Law discussion. I hate that discussion so fucking much, man.
** Memory is also an issue.
*** Or insert any fictional character you would personally complain about seeing in a ritual.
**** Was thaumaturgy involved? Absolutely. You try paying for your classes working at Taco Bell and let me know how that works out before pulling some “choose to be poor” or “you're evil” bullshit with me. Because otherwise, I will verbally berate you into avoiding me.


Unknown said...

Your can-opener is sharp!

I would like to point out another factor I think contributes significantly to the way things are: market forces. It is in the financial interest of publishers and authors to encourage the hero-worship you mention.


V.V.F. said...

I agree with Austin, that's definitely a significant factor.

I also tend to feel that the queen bees/Svengalis who prop themselves up as figureheads in various communities are kind of...I don't want to say "predatory," but...deep down, they know what they're doing, ya know? They get a high from giving people the guidance they want, and pretty soon they start to overreach. (I don't know if this is the mechanism behind what I discussed here, in which people are actively kept down or held back so that no one surpasses them. But it could be relevant.)

Is it weird that I'm for/against both sides of the pop culture debate? I feel like that's not allowed.

Jack Faust said...

Austin: Most definitely. It also expands into our Conventions, etc. Mass exposure seems to enhance all of the tendencies I see as problematic, rather than helping out. This isn't to say that the "underground" is any better; it is just as rife with problems, although some of them are unique.

VVF: I would prefer not to touch on the subject of Queen Bees and High Adepts too much, because someone might get mentioned by name and an army of their followers might appear. That said, there is something about it that does happening.

As for the whole, 'being for AND against' pop magick: I feel it has to be a valid position. I'm not terribly fond of a great number of rituals and practices that go on in both the pop and non-pop fields. But I need to acknowledge that:
1. I have, in fact, done it. And that even things that are today contextually 'traditional' (after all, they WERE done a few hundred years back) were once firmly in the category of popular understand.
2. I have even done modern pop techniques. Some worked; some didn't. My thoughts on why don't particularly matter, since I've put them down before. Like my "Strange Pastures" entry.

Part of my frustration with the last round of in-fighting with regards to pop-magick largely revolved around the lack of people considering a middle ground.

I mean... Oberon certainly wasn't always seen as the King of the Fairies; but once it became part of popular culture, we see rituals pop up to evoke him. Rituals that are awesome. So why put up a huge wall? Similar things can happen even now, and we should hope that they do.