Making generalizations about magic is always perilous.
To speak about magic is to speak of the almost the entirety of humanity’s attempts to understand and explore both science and religion. What are these things? Why are they like this? Can I influence these things (including myself) so that they might behave differently? To do magic is to set sail on an adventure of exploration and understanding regarding the nature of things and the (possible) means of causation.
When we reflect on the broad categories of theurgy and thaumaturgy, we can see that magic seeks to provide us both with creative ways of wrestling with the questions of theological meaning and also our human attempts to exert some control over our experience of material existence. When I view my own journey as a magician I can see a variety of stages in which I have used creative ritual and occult technologies (trance, evocation, divination etc.) to engage with a number of these dilemmas.
While I have spent significant amounts of time working with the type of theological preoccupations shared by many forms of contemporary Neo-Paganism, if I was trying to locate any common thread between the techniques and traditions that I have explored, I have largely been preoccupied by the psychological alchemy that magic can exert when we attempt to use it to engage with the unknown, the mysterious and what Freud called “the crushing superiority of nature”.
It’s fair to say that I take my magic with a fair dose of existentialism, and for me the sense of agency created by occult work provides me with a degree of leverage when seeking to create meaning in the world. Whether via the drama of ritual or the creative mind-set of the initiatory imagination, magic helps me both embrace the strength of my passions and also the possibility of managing chaos so that the likelihood of being overwhelmed is reduced.
Orthodox believers are often perplexed or horrified by the ways of the magician. We not only consciously revel in the pursuit of power and agency, but we often engage with personifications of death, impermanence and misrule. The magician is often the one who while valuing the light and the conscious, recognizes that the brutality of life also demands an engagement with the dark, the hidden and the potentially destructive. We see these forces both within ourselves and at work in the world. These are dangerous forces that threaten to overwhelm us and yet for the initiate, we respond to a deep hunch that we need to engage with this material. What matters in such work is the dose we take.
“The dose makes the poison” (sola dosis facit venenum) is an axiom credited to the 16th century scientist/alchemist Paracelsus and alludes to his idea that the amount of something is the critical factor in determining its risk to us. Basically this means that a substance can only produce the harmful effect associated with its toxic properties if it reaches a high enough level within a given body or system. Therefore risk is influenced by a whole range of variable factors such as our personal constitutions and our experience with a given substance.
When I reflect upon my spiritual and magical practice, I can see direct parallels between this perspective and the way in which I use my explorations of ritual, ecstatic states and divination as a way of more effectively managing my own struggle to engage with the uncertainty and anxiety of being alive.
Life throws all sorts of crazy shit at us: the reliable fails, we get ill, people die, politicians make hugely unwise decisions; you get the idea, this list could go on for a very long time. As we try to create a semblance of order and stability in our lives, the variable and the unknown encroach upon our efforts and then things fall apart. As much as we try to live peaceful lives, the shock of the new and the unexpected induces a whole flood of fight, flight and freeze responses as we try to make sense of the traumas that blind-side us.
While my own pursuit of the “Great Work” of magic is inevitably focused on creating an increased sense of agency in the face of such challenges, for me this is rarely about beseeching prayer and attempts to defy the laws of science. For me, it is more likely to be about a confrontation of my fears within the (relatively) contained setting of the ritual chamber or circle. This is the work of the initiate as we consciously seek to work with a potentially toxic aspect of reality so as to build a degree of resilience or even immunity.
Such work can be profoundly alchemical, in that in working with our fears and wrathful aspects of reality, we can consciously create tension and induce a profitable form of psycho-spiritual resistance. There are some parallels between this work and Hegel’s dialectical process. To introduce a challenging concept (e.g. our fear of death) also asks that we acknowledge its apparent opposite (the joy of experiencing life’s pleasures) and then via the tension between these polar extremes we can begin to synthesize our own unique resolution. The great mystic Jacob Bohme saw this dialectical tension within the very Godhead itself and the value that bitterness (Grimmigkeit) had in generating creativity and change.
Overdose is always possible and part of maturity on the path is knowing when to reduce our intake and ground ourselves via friends, food and more everyday concerns. Magic can be both upsetting and disturbing; the holism that it advocates usually demands the confrontation of aspects of self that we would often prefer to ignore. Most magical paths are designed to give the unconscious an almighty stir so that we are forced to wake from our sleep-states. There are easier hobbies out there if all we are seeking is distraction, but for those of us touched by this initiatory need-fire, this is a work not easily relinquished.