So long as it works – praxis, synthesis and eclecticism in magic

One of the most common invisible beliefs within the contemporary magical and Pagan communities is that practices and methods are good and effective “so long as they work”. This often sits side by side with an eclectic approach to magic and practice that posits the validity of mixing and matching parts of various systems, “so long as they work”. A dramatic example of this was given by Druid Priestess Emma Restall Orr when running a workshop in Perth several years ago.

Emma recounted how she was present at a large Pagan gathering where four different groups and traditions were chosen to open the four quarters. She recognised and appreciated the first three, but did not know the fourth group, opening the North quarter. They did so however wonderfully, producing an effective invocation of power but in a language she did not recognise. Afterwards, speaking to one of the invocators, she asked what the language was. “Klingon“, came the reply.

Now the moral being presented to us was that Star Trek Paganism is fine – anything is fine – “so long as it works”. However, I feel this simple statement needs a little unpacking.

As I keep pushing on MOTO, I think magic works by a concept I call orthometapraxy, that is a correct way of meta-action; ‘adjacent’, ‘beyond’, or ‘inner’ action. So while we recognise variants in Pagan circle casting procedures for example, we understand that a ‘correct’ circle process will have some interior action, intention and focus of clearing space and/or our minds, sacralising the circle area, linking the participants to their sacred ones etc. The focus here is on the principles of the inner activity, the ‘meta’ aspect of this rather long word.

Once we focus upon orthometapraxy rather than orthopraxy we are able to be more open to variants and changes within our broader traditions. And possibly even Klingon rituals :)

Gareth Knight

On a side note, his excellent focus on magical and inner principles is what prompts Gareth Knight to write of his recently republished classic, Magical Images and the Magical Imagination, that “armed with determination to follow through there is arguably little need for any other book if you want to know what magic is all about.” I certainly agree with this, but also highly recommend an upcoming work along the same lines by Nick Farrell, Magical Imagination: the Keys to Magic. Both books show a deep understanding of the principles we are talking about and both show how they are applied in practical magic.

space

Levels

When we say, “so long as it works” we need to be clear what we mean. Often people nod and agree to this statement without thinking what the word “works” entail. Magic functions, or should do, on several levels. Here I will use the generic schema of physical, etheric, astral, mental and spiritual planes or worlds, simply because this is what I use in my book, and readers are referred there for more information. Readers of experience can easily translate into the Qabalistic Souls schema or Theosophy or your favourite interior world paradigm.

When we say “so long as it works” we need to be clear then what effects, what changes and transformation are we requiring for the magic on each of these five levels. We need specific criteria for each level. Only then can we discern if our magical practice “works” or not. These criteria are seldom discussed within the public literature on magic, which leads to all sorts of problems.

Physical

Ye Olde Black Rod

I have a friend who has the coolest job title ever – ‘Usher of the Black Rod’. As such she is involved in ceremonial rituals within Parliament. These rituals require one thing, and one thing only to be effective – they have to be done. That is all. So long as the physical actions are carried out and the words spoken, the rituals are a success. Another friend is a civil marriage celebrant who specialises in Pagan and ‘alternate’ ceremonies, and again there are certain words that need to be said for the ritual to be a success. Anything else can be done around those words – even Klingon invocations – but the physical recitation of those words, even if done in a bored BBC newsreader voice, is what constitutes success.

In magic, we too need physical actions and physical words, otherwise it is not magic. Even interior journeys are grounded by some physical action. Obviously, however a magical circle is not a House of Parliament, and magic requires far more than just the physical to be fully effective.

Etheric

This is the ‘densest’ level of subtle existence, and our etheric embodiment is aware of the magnetic and almost electrical interchange of etheric substance between ourselves, our environment and other people. This is the level we ‘feel’ when we stand opposite someone we are sexually attracted to. Magic is very, very good at generating vast quantities of etheric substance – from our own bodies, the earth, the solar and  lunar forces etc.

On this level we need to have pre-established criteria of what type of etheric substance  (its source, stability etc) is going to be generated, by what actions and for what purposes. It is all too easy to feel the buzz of excess etheric substance in a ritual and conclude it was ‘energetic’ and ‘powerful’. But if the substance is not going to consciously used and/or absorbed to affect pre-established change, we are but a little better off than attending a football game or a dance party with horny singles on a Friday night. There is plenty of excess etheric substance in both these examples, and though not as clear and as healthy as that generated by a good Pagan ritual, they will give the same etheric buzz people often take as a hallmark of successful magic.

Astral-Emotional

The astral level is where most of the effects of much magic takes place. We feel better for it, or we may have astral experiences and visions. Our astral bodies can be altered by magic very easily, even inscribed or infused with certain symbols or energies. Again, we need to clear exactly what we are after. Invocations, visualisation  and the presence of interior beings affect the astral body which again leads to a feeling  of ‘power’. A classic example of this is the Middle Pillar exercise Regardie developed from RR et AC principles. This experience of astral ‘power’ can easily become intoxicating and the benchmark for a ‘good’ ritual. However, excess astral light is, in and by itself, worthless.

The astral level is that of our regular personality, and this is why some magic really shakes us up – the idea of our self is literally injected with another force, or it is expanded, or pared away or becomes insignificant in the presence of a greater force or being. These effects however will not result in permanent changes in the astral body and our selves unless the ‘higher’ levels are involved.

It is a major principle of magic that any level of our embodiment can only be fully transformed by the action of the ‘superior’ level to it. We can see this clearly when we examine our lives: our conscious physical actions requiring energy from the etheric, which in turns requires a personality level decision. Changes to this personality level requires a mental awareness and will.

However, if we are happy for a ritual to simply affect us emotionally, like many exoteric church services, then we need not worry about higher level principles, or even controlled astral experiences. Otherwise, like the etheric we need to have pre-established principles concerning the exact effects we are seeking on the astral level, which is not to say we need to control or limit the inner experience, but only choose the principles behind it. An interior being can be seen in several different astral forms by different people, but the principle of its effects on our astral bodies will be the same for each person.

Mental

Not all magic effects the mental level, and this is why a lot of western magic and Paganism is just the same old circle going round and round – like most spiritual systems really. Full and effective work on the mental level requires going beyond our ego, our sense of self. This takes correct motivation – that not focused on the self.  Often though so called altruism is really about making the self feel good. A non-self focused is not all light and compassionate either.  It does however, normally require experience and maturity and often, some decent magical training. To quote, yet again, my favourite Anglican contemplative:

As Buddhism observed long ago, pain and pleasure are simply two ends of the old “egoic stick.” As long as one is drawing one’s vital energy from self-esteem, self-affirmation, and self-expression, even in service of the purest and noblest of causes, one is still orbiting within the egoic feedback loop. As long as happiness and a personal sense of self-worth are still the measures by which one relates to life and adjusts one’s heading; as long as vitality is the measure of spiritual wellbeing, one is trapped within the egoic feedback system. These are not moral judgments; they are descriptive criteria. And by these criteria, it is depressingly clear that ninety-nine percent of what is being promulgated as contemporary Western spirituality is merely fine-tuning the ego.

(http://www.sacredweb.com/online_articles/sw4_bourgeault.html)

The mental level is concerned with meaning and it here we connect with transpersonal forces and beings of meaning, that are beyond ourselves. For example, whereas a symbol will have a personal meaning at the astral-emotional level, and affect us personally, when we interconnect with the same symbol on the mental level we encounter a deeper, non-personal meaning. Our relationship with that meaning is what changes us and helps us grow.

Developing pre-established criteria for successful magical action on the mental level is a lot harder than the previous three levels. This is because at this level we, our personality selves, cannot accurately create such criteria – they are conceptually and by definition beyond us. We can only use established traditional criteria or an interior sense that cannot be conveyed in words, except perhaps through great poetry. The traditional criteria points to a change in function within our lives, that is mental level magic should be slowly changing us towards a non-personal modality, that nevertheless functions through the personal.

Spiritual

To be fully effective, all magic needs to work on the spiritual level also, the level of deep divinity. It is this connection that empowers all other levels and which keeps all other levels balanced. The spiritual level however is not able to be manipulated by human will. It is beyond the affairs of humanity and it is only our honest openness and interior relationship with beings and presences at this level which can ‘invoke’ it at all.

Successful magic on a spiritual level cannot be described, only experienced. One of the few words we may use to sum it up, pointing to a glimpse of understanding, is Communion.

Eclecticism

Allied to the concept of “whatever works” is eclecticism. For the sake of clarity, in this post we will contrast this with the concept of synthesis. An eclectic approach is where we consciously take and use particular parts of various traditions, religions, rituals and magic and create our own version. This is done from a limited, personality base, that is to say the consciousness level of you and I and the regular lady on the street. Unless we are someone special of course. I have spoken a little about this in a previous post.

Synthesis on the other hand brings in a third and higher force. There is the human creator(s), the various diverse elements she is working with and a third higher, divine force – something beyond the personal, beyond the self. The third higher force is the controlling agency and is typically the initiator of the synthetic project, not the human creator(s). Its ways and motivations are its own, and sometimes the choice of human collaborators is a bit mystifying to our perception. In this synthesis something new is created which nonetheless bears the hallmark of its sources, human creator(s) and the third higher force.

I consider the Golden Dawn to be the classic example of magical synthesis in the modern era. This explains why it works so well (when practiced properly). As a synthesis, one can, if reductive, analyse it to show the various component sources – Hermetic, Masonic etc –  that went into its making, as well as the personality marks of its founders, Westcott and Mathers. We can also detect, if we are careful, the divine hallmark of the third power, often associated with the motto Lux ex Tenebris or the angel Raphael. It is this third, higher and divine power that ensures the GD is a real, living creation and can be worked by those without physical lineage to the mother temple(s). It is why its practitioners recognise each other and each other’s work.

Eclecticism, which creates without the third higher non-personal force, even if influenced by the higher conscious of its creator, is not synthesis. It cannot be universally useful, by definition, for anyone beyond its creators. And this is why so many magical groups and Orders that seemingly took a similar approach to the GD have long since withered and died. Even on a individual level, eclecticism may be less than useful, since we so often choose from a distinctly ego basis not our own inner higher power. If we do this we feed the ego and are therefore barred from the higher forces.

The beautiful thing about practicing a synthetic tradition, such as the Golden Dawn, is that it is constantly expanding us beyond ourselves, the limited notions we have about our place in the universe and of the universe itself. An eclectic tradition may allow some measure of this, if we consciously subsume our choices to conform with someone else’s higher, creative force, but there is not a touch of the third higher force. This is not sustainable over the long haul for true seekers of divinity. This is why those groups that are created in this manner seldom continue beyond the death of their founders and why true synthetic traditions, such as the Golden Dawn and the Inner Light, continue today.

The concept of magical synthesis also clearly shows the interior blessings these groups had, regardless of forged charters and bogus continental adepts in the case of the Golden Dawn (Dion of course was always honest about her interior commission). It also shows where to place our focus – towards the interior beings and blessings behind our traditions, not any outer organisation at all. Now that does work! :) Thanks.

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6 comments

  1. Samuel · February 11, 2013

    Peregrin,

    Once again, you put up a very thought provoking blog post.

    I have to wholeheartedly agree with you about the differences between Synthesisism and Eclecticism and how they operate on the personal and group level.

    Like you, I have seen and heard the whole argument for eclecticism and how “if it works, use it” even when the working material comes from divergent magical traditions and oft times uses symbolism that clashes with the intent of the ritual or ceremonial work being created or performed.

    Bringing different things together in a system so that they are taught in a particular framework on the other hand does have a lot to offer. The Golden Dawn, as you point out, is the classic shining example of this approach, especially when connected to the higher Divine Forces at work for the betterment of the system and those that practice it.

    The creators of the Golden Dawn had a wide range of magical practices and techniques to draw from when they started pulling things together. They could have included Voodoo or something else like that within the system because it Worked, but the overall symbolism of that tradition did not fit the mould they were handed by the Divine Guardians of the Order and hermetic tradition. They could have even included traditional Western Necromancy (as practiced in Greece and Rome), but they declined to include that too within the system they created.

    What they added in works exceedingly well, especially if worked properly.

    In LVX,
    Samuel

  2. Peregrin · February 11, 2013

    Thank you, Samuel :)

    Yes, I think people forget there were a lot of other strands of the western traditions that were consciously NOT synthesized into the Golden Dawn. Good point! :)

  3. Andrew · February 11, 2013

    Hmmm. A lot of things worth thinking about in this post: the nature of syncretism; the depth of imagination and creativity required to develop a truly working tradition; the humility necessary to develop a working syncretistic tradition; and the diversity of strains of thought between “what works”, “what what revealed to me in a frightening/powerful way”, and “what underlies the truth”. (Brief pause while I change some commas to semi-colons).

    I did a working for the Farmington Witch Project recently, that drew on a lot of lore thrown into the cooking pot from a lot of different directions — it included, as the basis for casting the circle, the idea that “not all our paths are the same: what do we share in common?” with the core answers being the Four Directions, The Four Elements, The Duality of God and Goddess, the Power of Symbols, and the Unity of Every Thing. It was a beautiful ritual, but it’s certainly not the basis of a tradition, as much as I’d like it to be (that would be egotistical). It had a flavor of witchcraft, without actually being witchcraft, or druidry, or eclecticism, or any of the other traditions we five ‘officers’ represented. It was a taste of the etheric buzz, maybe of the astral buzz, maybe of the mental buzz… but it was a magical amuse-bouche, not the deep transformative change of the real deal. And yet, at the end, the descendant of one of the witches in Connecticut who was executed came to me, and said, “that was marvelous! What can I do to help?” and I was able to hand him a form from the society that sponsored the event, and say, “here. Fill this out. Give some money. Pay for the research into your family, and the deep dive into the trial records and archives of the towns and the state. Help fund the appeal for clemency for her, and the 18 others in this state.”

    I contrast that with the effort I’ve made over the last three weeks to learn how not to chew my nails. I’ve been an obsessive, compulsive nail-biter since I was a kid; I was in fourth grade and I was going to school with a nasty-tasting lacquer on my fingernails (I bit them anyway). The last three weeks, whenever the compulsion to bite my nails arose, I recited one of the Orphic Hymns dedicated to the planetary deities: Moon, Mars, Hermes, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Sun. I burned incense twice a day in their honor, and I gave them thanks for their assistance. And I’ve gone three weeks without biting my nails — clipping them occasionally instead. There was no etheric or astral buzz. Really just a mental or spiritual component, I’d say. And yet it was hundreds of times more effective than any other method I’ve tried to use to control my nail-biting habit in thirty years.

    Magical? Yes. Eclectic? Yes, I’d say so. Does it make me uneasy, like a good spiritual tradition could or should? Yes, I’d say so. Could it be systematized? Perhaps, perhaps not. Awkward? Yes.

    So it’s odd: the definition of “whatever works” is both wider and narrower than we typically define it.

  4. Peregrin · February 11, 2013

    Hi Andrew,

    yes, this is a very interesting juxtaposition you have here. Not to mention, interesting stories in an by themselves. I really hope the fund and push for clemency was helped by the ritual and its attendant community.

    The Orphic hymns are very wonderful… and your application of these at the high mental level, for personal reasons, is very interesting. I like this.

    Thanks for the ponderings and the questions :)

  5. Pingback: I’m making it up | The Allergic Pagan
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