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Evaluation of Traditions: Magic

February 25, 2010 11 comments

“There is no ‘black magic’, but rather sorcerers groping in the dark. They grope in the dark because the light of gnosis and mysticism is lacking.” (Meditations on the Tarot, corrected edition 2002 Tarcher/Putnam, pg. 43)

There are many different “traditions” of magic, though they all come down, more or less, to aesthetic differences over practical ones. Certain among these traditions do appear to be more consistently effective than others, but I’ll get to that. Given the preceding, I’m going to treat magic as a single subject for the purposes of this article, only referring to differences of magical systems when necessary for clarity. It is also important to define my parameters right from the start. Under the heading of magic, I include divination and psychism (psychic powers). Divination is simply the use of magical techniques to gain information, while psychic powers are magical powers usually distinguished by their untrained use. Within these categories are also included most New Age and New Thought practices.

“Psychic” means “pertaining to the soul”, from the Greek “psyche”. Let us briefly explore mystical psychology (study, or logic, of the soul) before moving on to the implications of such on magic. Each human being is composed of their physical body, their soul (personality, astral body) and mind (mental body). Nearly every mystical and religious tradition worldwide will agree on this scheme, or one very much like it. Some divide these three “bodies” yet further, while some consider the soul and mind to be two facets of a single entity. It doesn’t matter if these divisions are taken literally or not; while we are alive, there are no hard and fast divisions here, anyway. What is important is that we recognize these three levels of our living awareness: physical, emotional/personal, and mental.

There is still a subtler layer, though: Spirit. In much of Western esoteric thought, mind and spirit are often conflated with one another. Even the great Franz Bardon used the terms almost interchangeably (although with an often unnoticed subtlety that belies his acute awareness of the differences). The cause of the conflation is that most people will go through their whole lives with only a handful of truly, consciously, spiritual experiences. Under those conditions, experiences of the spirit seem to be explainable as simple overload of the mind-brain. This is not entirely untrue; the way we consciously learn to reach for spiritual experiences does involve a lot of mental game-playing (concentration) at first. Eventually, according to the masters, the games become unnecessary as mind melts into Spirit and becomes identified with It.

So what is Spirit? Without going too far with my words, Spirit is God. In Buddhism, Spirit and Nirvana are identical. In Judaism, Spirit may be called Ain Soph. In Hinduism, Spirit is the Atman which is Brahman, the Unknowable and Uncreated. For a Christian, we are talking about God’s Holy Spirit by which we attain to Union in Love with God the Father. Our bodies, souls and minds are of God, as we are each of our human parents, but our Spirit is that in us which is God. I cannot say “my spirit”, but only “Spirit”. Without Spirit, that which identifies itself as “Nicholas Graham” simply wouldn’t be. Spirit is the breath-of-God in which we live, move, and have our being.

All of that being said, we can move on to the relevance of this to an exploration of magic.

Magic is not, cannot be, a spiritual practice. It is mental and psychic primarily, and physical secondarily, but not spiritual. It is by virtue of Spirit that magic works at all, but that is true of everything, so magic is not uniquely “spiritual”. Magic itself cannot help us in drawing closer to Spirit, in the process of identifying mind with Spirit.

In fact, this is the very source of the prohibitions in most traditional religions against the practice of magic: it is not that magic is evil, so much as it is a distraction from higher pursuits. In both Christianity and Judaism, at least as far as the Scriptures are concerned, there is no prohibition against the practice of magic. The Bible only prohibits the use of specific methods of enslaving the souls of the dead (oboth and yideonim) in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament it prohibits poisoning with herbs (pharmakoi). In most English Bibles, all of these terms are translated “magic”, “sorcery”, “witchcraft”, “witch”, “wizard”, and the like, but none of those words actually mean “magic” or anything of the sort.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using magic to change the world in which we live, though any use of magic to attack or manipulate another living being is as unlawful as any other means of doing the same, with the added sin of doing so dishonorably, “behind the scenes” as it were. It is without question that using magic to help people with their problems is a good act, insofar as that aid actually removes barriers between them and God.

There is also the question of the various traditions of so-called “ritual magic”. The practitioners of these traditions typically make great spiritual claims about them, citing dramatic visions and meeting with all manner of metaphysical entities. I do not doubt that many ritual magicians do achieve these visions. I have plenty of personal experience in this realm, myself. I also do not doubt the life-changing nature of the experiences involved. They, at the very least, provide experiential confirmation that the physical world is not all that there is. Still, these things are not “spiritual” insofar as they do not have anything to do with Spirit. They are experiences of the mind and soul. The masters and saints of all traditions, as well as the personal experiences of many seekers through the ages, reveal to us the fact that pure spiritual experience is without any sensory input from within or without. “For silence is the sign of real contact with the spiritual world and this contact, in turn, always engenders the influx of forces.” (Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 11)

There is one category of practice often related to magic which is genuinely spiritual, insofar as it leads to spiritual experience. This is known as theurgy. “Theurgy” means “God work”; that is, the theurgist seeks to make of herself a conscious and willing “instrument of God’s peace”. “The magus in sacred magic plays the role of the last link in the magical chain which descends from above, i.e. in order to serve as the terrestrial point of contact and point of concentration for the operation conceived, willed and put into action from above.” (Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 57)

I will not go into theurgy more deeply than this for now, except to say that theurgy can outwardly resemble magical rituals in many ways, including the use of ritual gestures, physical tools, incense, and the like, but the inner processes differ greatly and more closely resemble contemplative prayer. Theurgy is also sometimes known as “sacred magic” or “divine magic”. It is only magic at all insofar as theurgy may sometimes be used to effect a change in the mental, astral or physical worlds.

In theurgy, we do find the whole of the ethic of magic:

This is the aim of sacred magic; it is nothing other than to give the freedom to see, to hear, to walk, to live, to follow an ideal and to be truly oneself—i.e. to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to walk to the lame, life to the dead, good news or ideals to the poor and free will to those who are possessed by evil spirits. It never encroaches upon freedom, the restoration of which is its unique aim. (Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 61)

Even the simplest sorcery will be judged upon this basis: does it enhance or diminish freedom? Does it liberate, or does it enchain?

So there is the crux: magic is itself not spiritual, but it can either aid or hinder the spiritual quest. It can create space in one’s life for Divine things, or it can become a means of abuse like any other. Magic is only lawful insofar as it creates that space and manifests true, perfect love; otherwise, it is the most foolish and vain of pursuits.

The Devil

Once, long ago, lived a man named Siddhartha, sometimes called Siddhartha Guatama, Shakyamuni Buddha or, simply, the Buddha. Siddhartha was quick as a serpent, and patient as an ox. He was also enlightened.

Siddhartha searched for years to find a method of spiritual practice that would lead directly and safely to enlightenment, a method that would allow anybody who committed themselves to it to lift themselves beyond the reach of suffering even while alive. When he could find no such methods in his whole land, he decided to make of himself a laboratory.

And so he went out into the wilderness and sat under a tree and vowed, saying, “I will not move from this spot until I have achieved the Goal.”

As he sat and meditated, concentrating himself entirely upon the reality of the present moment, Siddhartha was confronted by many visions. Beautiful women danced and stripped before his eyes. Riches fell from the heavens. Gods and demons bowed before him, pledging their eternal service if he would but stand up, then threatening him with inhuman torments if he refused to wiggle a toe. Every possible passion was embodied in front of him. But Siddhartha just sat and smiled. Each vision came and, inevitably, went.

At length, Mara, the king of demons, appeared in person, revealing himself to be behind all of the temptation through which Siddhartha had sat. Even now, with the great Mara himself cajoling, threatening and bribing him, Siddhartha just sat and smiled. Mara realized that he had been bested, but vowed not to let this be the end of the fight, and went on his way. And so Siddhartha became the Buddha, the Awakened One.

But the story does not end there. Siddhartha went on to teach his method to all who would hear him. He taught of patience and wisdom, of compassion and discipline, of a sober way to enjoy life and achieve enlightenment without sacrificing health and sanity. He was known for being patient and wise, compassionate and disciplined. But even he would feel the occasional upwelling of an unhealthy passion, or the budding of an unskillful thought. What he had learned under that tree, though, he applied at those times. He stopped those emotions and thoughts from becoming dangerous and evil words and actions. Whenever they arose within him, no matter how strongly they surged, he would smile and quietly say, “I see you, Mara.” And at that, his mind and soul were stilled and Mara vanished.

Around five hundred years after Siddhartha, but still very long ago, lived a man named Yeshua. Yeshua, known today as Jesus, was a carpenter by trade and a faithful Jew. Yeshua was a brilliant public speaker, an honest teacher, and a true man of God. He was also anointed by God.

Yeshua studied Torah throughout his youth, even interpreting it for the rabbis much older than himself. He knew from a young age that it was his life’s mission to do the will of God. He knew also that his mission involved teaching others how to become anointed themselves and to spread that anointing far and wide. This was his Good News. To begin his mission, Yeshua received a baptism of water to make way for the fiery anointing of God’s Holy Spirit.

And so he went out into the wilderness and sat upon a hill to meditate and pray, and vowed, saying, “I will not move from this spot until I am fully with my Father in Heaven, one with His Will.”

As he sat and meditated, concentrating himself entirely upon the One Reality, Yeshua was confronted by voices and visions. “You are hungry, yes?” he would hear. “Use the power of your Father in Heaven to turn these rocks into bread and you will be sated.” But Yeshua did not budge, calmly responding, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And so Yeshua saw himself on the pinnacle of the Temple and was told, “Throw yourself down from here to prove that you are God’s son. Surely, your Father will send His angels to save you!” But Yeshua shrugged and said, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Finally, Yeshua was whisked to a high mountain from which he could see far and wide and was told, “All of this I rule, and all of it I will give to you if you will only bow down and worship me.” But Yeshua said, “Get behind me, adversary! You shall only worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve!” And so the tiny god (devil) left Yeshua.

But the story does not end there. Yeshua went on to teach his way of life to all who would hear him. He taught of patience and wisdom, of compassion and discipline, of a sober way to enjoy life and attain to God. He was known for being honest and true, powerful and humble. But even he would have continue run-ins with unskillful thoughts and dangerous passions. When he found them within himself, he honestly examined them and would pray for comfort or the lifting-up of his cup of troubles from off his heart, but always ending his prayer, “But not my will, but Yours be done.” When he found them within others, he would bring their attention to the situation with a shocking, “Get behind me, adversary!” And at that, he would still his own mind and soul, and the minds and souls of those who came to him for teaching, and the tiny god vanished.