In modern magical discourse, we spend a lot of time discussing how practitioners should approach the practice of magic, and these discussions are often framed in terms of two viewpoints, which form the ends of a spectrum. At one end, magic is seen as a purely psychological paradigm, and doing magic (if one "does magic" at all) is about inducing changes in the magician's consciousness, rather than creating any sort of tangible effects here on the material plane where most of us live, move, and have our being. From this end of the spectrum, the idea that magic actually has the ability to change the reality outside our own heads can be seen as possible, if implausible, or as laughable wish-fulfillment. At the other, somewhat more traditional end, magic is solely and only about the ability to effect changes in both spiritual and physical realities through the exertion of one's will in a set of specific ritual acts, and any psychological effects the practitioner experiences are, at best, tangential to the work itself. It's become fashionable in modern occult circles to hold one or the other of these mutually exclusive positions, which are fundamentally positions on the "reality" of magic itself, and to insist that the other end of the spectrum is inherently false and misguided.
Being a bit of a contrarian at heart, I'm here to encourage us all to embrace the power of "and." Magic is definitely psychological…and it's absolutely, tangibly real. I've done magic to achieve outcomes in the so-called "mundane" world, and to help me cope with personal and spiritual issues with which I was struggling, and both kinds of magic have worked. In fact, I've learned over time that sometimes, one sort of issue can masquerade as the other: the troubles I'm having in a relationship might manifest as difficulties at work, and my anxieties about money could stem from physical illness or injury. The point is, I don't think it's ever one thing or the other.
So, in the spirit of bridging the gap between the traditional and psychological views on magic, here are five personal, psychological lessons I've learned about life from doing real, operant magic.
- Caveat emptor.
Everything has a price and, at the risk of sounding like one of those spooky warnings you hear in a cheesy horror movie, sometimes that cost isn't what you expect. I don't mean something terrible, à la "The Monkey's Paw" or Pet Sematary, but that it often winds up being the sacrifice of something in which you've invested your time and energy, but that is keeping you from having the thing you want…in other words, something you don't really want to give up, but that you're better off without. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something to keep in mind. As Laura Tempest Zakroff points out, magic takes the path of least resistance. If the thing that keeps you from becoming the full-time artist you dream of being is your mindless day job, doing a spell to clear the way for you to be an artist might get you into a better job where you have time to do art and enough money to buy materials...or it might do you out of a job altogether, so that you have all the time you could want.
- Contemplate twice, cast once.
Magic is hardly safe, but a certain amount of daring leavened with caution and common sense will usually see you through. Going into your magical workings knowing what you want is obviously important (and it really is!) but, remembering our previous example of the aspiring artist, considering the ramifications of what you want is also key to good outcomes. I don't mean you should second-guess yourself into a frenzy of doubt, but you should put some honest thought into what you're actually hoping to gain from doing magic, rather than rushing off on a wing and a prayer. What needs and desires are you trying to fulfill with this spellwork, and to what end?
- Specificity, but with slack.
Magic works best given leeway. Conversely, I've found that over-plotted, micro-managed magic tends to peter out or dissipate in a cloud of expectations. In my experience, I get the best results from my magic (or really, from anything else in life) when I have a clear sense of the qualities I want the outcome to have, rather than an overly specific notion of what that outcome should be. When you're doing magic, you should absolutely have a goal in mind—what you want your life to look like afterwards—but work to frame that goal in terms loose enough to give your magic some breathing room to operate. So, instead of doing spellwork or praying for some particular job, house, car, or whatever, focus on getting a better one, and consider the ways in which you want it to be better: higher salary, fewer hours, more bathrooms, better gas mileage, and so on. In other words, once you have a sense of the needs and desires you're doing magic to fulfill, focus on creating an outcome that will meet those needs and desires, rather than on an idealized image of a specific outcome you believe will meet those needs and desires.
- Just walk away.
Whether it's a performance, a project, or a relationship, we get attached to things in which we've invested ourselves, and that's right and proper. However, all things have a life cycle: a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's common knowledge, but it's easy to forget. It can be tempting for some of us to extend the time and effort we spend with a working, to fiddle with the details, or to revisit a working and "check up on how it’s doing." These temptations are all essentially attempts to feel like we have some sort of control over the outcome, beyond the work we've already put in. When I find myself doing this, I take a deep breath and utter the first half of a magical phrase I learned from cooking-show auteur Alton Brown: "Just walk away." Once you've done the work, set it aside and let the work play itself out. Trust in the magic you've done, in the gods and spirits you've invoked, and, to quote the second half of Alton Brown's magic phrase, "Your patience will be rewarded."
- Whenever possible, be kind.
One needn't be a Buddhist or a Christian to believe that much of human existence is defined by suffering. After all, Thorn Coyle writes in Evolutionary Witchcraft how Victor Anderson, the late grandmaster of the Feri Tradition, taught her that witchcraft was born out of human suffering and human need. If we turn to C. G. Leland's Aradia, we are shown magic as both a weapon against the oppressors of the land and a comfort in times of trouble. Turn to the classical grimoires or to compendiums of folk magic and you'll see spells intended to cure illnesses for people and livestock, to find money and bring about prosperity, to ease suffering and give respite. Perhaps it sounds corny, but it's true: all of us struggle at one time or another, and few of us are at our best when we're struggling. It behooves those of us who would seek to hold and wield power, magically or otherwise, to let kindness be our default setting, especially when dealing with those who have less power than we do. That doesn't mean coddling others' weakness, or letting parasites siphon your time and energy. It also doesn't mean condemning others for being weak or needy. It means being compassionate, understanding, and ethical, even when there are compelling provocations to do otherwise. We can think of it as a kind of noblesse oblige, or as an iteration of the Golden Rule, the one about treating others as we would wish to be treated in their position. Either way, how we use the power given to us is, I think, revelatory. If we want magic to dominate others and do reckless harm, we're the sort of people who, under other circumstances, would use any other kind of force to do the same. On the other hand, if we want magic to improve our lives and the lives of those around us, it suggests we're invested in the world being a better place.
And those, in the end, are the greatest occult secrets I know. Learn to be careful, discerning, mindful, patient, and kind, and you will know far more about both magic and life than any number of would-be master magicians or witches. Moreover, you'll be the sort of person who can master themselves, which is the beginning and the end of all true magic.