In September of last year, I posed a question on Facebook about magic:
How do you define magic? What is it? How does it work?
I’ve never liked Dion Fortune’s definition, that magic is “the art of changing consciousness at will.” I’m thinking of writing an article about why it’s so bad, but first I’d like to hear what others think. No pressure, mind you…
Little did I expect such an overwhelming response: 55 generous, thought-provoking comments by a range of brilliant people. Re-reading them now feels like being in the best graduate seminar ever. Needless to say, it has taken me a while to digest it all.
My impetus for asking the question was to continue the work I started in The Baby and the Bathwater, and examine the foundations of my spiritual training. I want to explore what I was taught versus what I now believe about aligning with the elements, working magic, creating community and using ritual for transformation.
This will eventually lead to a bigger work, probably a rewritten and expanded version of my dissertation on the priestess. These days I write books one blog post at a time, so for now I just need to dive in. Defining magic seems like a good place to start.
“Magic is the Art of Changing Consciousness at Will”
I first heard Dion Fortune’s definition of magic in the early 80s, and it has taken me this long to figure out why I don’t like it. It turns out that 30 years is not an unreasonable amount of time in which to fully change our consciousness around a single issue—especially if you apply a great deal of willpower to it.
And that’s the key to why I rejected Dion Fortune’s definition.
The big fallacy in the “focused will” model of magic is that consciousness is hierarchical. The mind sets its goal, you use breath and a bunch of other stuff to clear the channel between your head and all those lower chakras, create a circuit of energy flowing into your solar plexus, then beam out that laser-focused will to activate your desires.
Even if this method works for some people, for me it just highlighted the model’s deeper flaws. Because what happens to the minority report? Sure, our minds can overpower just about any conflicting signals coming in, but is that really what we want?
I reasoned that the proof of this philosophy of magic would lie in studying the lives of those who live by it. Were there any teachers or practitioners out there whose lives as a whole I admired? What were they successful at manifesting, and what were the obvious caveats to their success? Most importantly, did they have healthy relationships? Were their children happy and thriving, or disturbed and struggling?
In the end, out of a few hundred I found maybe a handful of people who I felt were grounded and sane as well as successful at this type of magical practice. So I abandoned that approach entirely and turned to dreams, particularly dream incubation, to see how well that worked.
As I wrote here, dreams are an excellent means for both listening to and integrating that minority report. If there is something I want to manifest, I ask for dreams about it. Without exception, this has helped me be wiser in what I ask for and better able to integrate the changes that come.
What About the Body?
If consciousness is not hierarchical, what other methods can we use to change it? In my experience, transformation starts in the body, as far away from the head as possible, then slowly makes its way into our minds. And because deep wisdom arises in the extremities, the more focused and overpowering our will is, the more difficult it is for this emerging wisdom to register in our awareness.
Dreamwork helps. Trusting dreams means trusting the wild reaches of consciousness, following them and learning their logic. It really helps to do this with a solid group of friends who can help you identify those emerging patterns and keep your bearings at the same time.
But dreamwork can also be very heady. We need a physical practice too, like aikido or chi gung.
Aikido helped me learn how it feels when my will and mind are aligned and in right proportion with the rest of my body. It taught me at a far deeper level than any other practice how to expand my awareness, how to be aligned with the flow of power, how to move strongly with a centered focus that comes from the body as well as the mind. I use it every day.
The Consciousness of Everything
At last, I had found a combination of practices that enabled me to trust both what I asked for, and what I received. It was a much more complicated and demanding process than the one I’d been taught, but in the end felt so much simpler.
There were a number of responses to my original post that took a Taoist view of magic: being in the flow makes things happen. This is true, but it’s kind of like saying that jazz improvisation is easy, when making it look easy is actually the end of a very long process of mastery.
More than anything, magic is a study in paradox. So it was probably no coincidence that the other day I came across a great quote about magic by Carl Jung, a master at understanding paradox:
Everything that works magically is incomprehensible, and the incomprehensible often works magically. The magical opens spaces that have no doors and leads one out into the open where there is no exit. We need magic to be able to receive or invoke the messenger and the communication of the incomprehensible. Magic is a way of living. If one has done one’s best to steer the chariot, and one then notices that a greater other is actually steering it, then magical operation takes place. (The Red Book, 314)
For now, “Magic is a way of living” is a good enough definition for me. Because magic is what you see and experience when a whole bunch of other things are finely-tuned and working well. Maybe it sometimes looks like a mere act of will and mindful focus, but the reality is so much more interesting, and rewarding.