One of the best definitions of magic comes from Golden Dawn adept Florence Farr when she writes that magic “unlimits” us. It takes us beyond regular everyday existence into the presence of the sacred, the numinous and the unknowable. And hopefully it brings us back in time to make the kids’ dinner.
This view finds resonance with the religious conception of ecstasy or ekstasis; a standing beside or outside one’s self, a transportation to the higher states of consciousness which renews and gives meaning and power to our lives. The ecstatic experience is not a momentary thing. It changes our lives and provides us with an ongoing source of richness, love, power and beauty. In effect it makes us fully alive.
Dion Fortune explored this theme in all her magical novels, showing how the ecstatic brings fullness of life to an otherwise drab, automatic and grey existence. She also shows clearly how this manifests as the sexual force and how the higher states of consciousness are required to successfully integrate ecstasy into a richer and fuller daily life. Otherwise things can easily go awry.
Put simply, spiritual unfoldment is not the same as ecstasy or altered states of awareness nor is it brought on or developed solely by repeated experiences of the same. Other qualities, such as discipline, morality, compassion, altruism, introspection, and community service are required.
Religion and Magic
Once upon a distant time religion did all of these things. The creation of ecstatic states, the initiation into new ways of being and the integration of these into people’s lives and communities were once the mainstays of religion, wherever and however it was found. Sadly, and perhaps rightly, religion is now relegated to the back corner of once held but now slightly embarrassing aspects of our culture. Dion Fortune herself had no problem laying the collective mess of the sexual issues within the west clearly at the doorstep of exoteric Christianity.
Despite the failure of the churches in the west to meet the need for the ecstatic, it remains. People need to feel alive, to have meaning and a deeper awareness beyond the material. Magic, among other spiritual pursuits meets some of those needs, helping us to be alive in the full sense of the word. This is why organised western magic only really started to come into existence once western religion and society lost its bearings and religious experience gave way to doctrinal formulations, social acceptance and slipping on the Sunday best.
Of course magic is beset with its own problems which I do not wish to go into deeply here except one; modernity. Contemporary magic, like contemporary new ageism and Neo-paganism is a child of the modern era and partakes of many of its qualities, a chief one being individualism. Magic is not a social, public practice. It valorises the individual and is concerned with the individual’s personal spiritual unfoldment not social transformation and liberation. Not, to quote Mr Seinfeld, “that’s there anything wrong with that”. But it does need to be recognised. Religion too in the modern era became more individualised and inward focused, particularly as society itself became more and more atomised.
Life however is far more than the individual and it is for this reason the novels and works of Dion Fortune have the constant themes of the social, the racial and the group mind. Dion was constantly concerned for and working on the social as well as the individual level. This is one of the reasons why she, not the founders of the Golden Dawn, is on my altar.
We all need to be fully alive or we end up, quoting Mr Thoreau, leading ‘lives of quiet desperation’. A quick scan of the world around us will show this is true. It will also show how much energy, power, time and resources are being poured into attempts to experience ecstasy by people whose spiritual traditions have failed them completely. Drugs, pleasure-based sex, music, virtual worlds, on-line gaming, raves, dance, bungee jumping, BDSM, mass crowd football, the adoration of the Queen. All of these offer a partial experience of ecstasy. But because they are sourced by the human, not divine they offer at best only incomplete revelation and at worst, corruption.
I find all this very sad. Like Dion I cannot help but lay a lot of the fault at the doorstep of what passes for religion in our society. There are precious few church options for genuine religious ecstasy any more. Most churches have either become emotionally charged happy-clappy affairs or have so denuded the mystical and numinous from their culture they offer little more than dry and vague moral platitudes. It is no wonder people turn elsewhere to get a deeper sense of life.
There is a Marxist analysis that says the reason why the worker’s revolution never came in the west is because we were ‘brought off’. The increased standards of living, better food and more recreational time meant we became happy to continue to be pawns of the capitalist state (at the expense of the third world, whom we never meet). Certainly most of us in the west now live as well as millionaires lived at the turn of the 20th century, so there is some truth to this.
I think a similar thing has happened with our need for ecstasy. We have been slowly brought off with false ecstasies. Look at the list above. Many of these things were unavailable or fraught with danger not too many decades ago. These days we can easily have sexual experiences for the sake of sex alone, (and with safe birth control). Drugs are sold in the schoolyard. We can easily lose ourselves for hours online slaying orcs or experience adrenalin overload every weekend while hurtling towards the ground.
These however are incomplete ecstasies and can never offer full revelation or bring about transformation of self or society. However, because of the lack of religious and spiritual education and background we cannot easily begin to even discuss these facts in the modern world. Try telling a bunch of teenagers on their way to a rave that the experience they are seeking is actually religious in nature. Or that something deeper and more lasting than what they experience through dance, drugs and sex can be found in quiet contemplation or engaged Communion at church. They don’t understand, and I can see why. (On a personal note, I once did have such a conversation with some youth on late night train. They thought I was old, and weird but ‘all right’.)
It is in this light I think we need to view Gerald Gardner’s words I often quote when explaining that Wicca is not a mystery religion. He wrote in Witchcraft Today that he thought the Witch was ‘doomed’ and that
science has displaced her; good weather reports, good health services, outdoor games, bathing, nudism, the cinema and television have largely replaced what the witch had to give. (Witchcraft Today, p.129).
I think ol’ Gerald may have been onto something there – games, bathing, nudism and immersive entertainment are indeed good examples of limited ecstasies. Gardner’s analysis however missed an important point. Limited ecstasy, like all experiences below Tiphareth on the Tree of Life, can become addictive. After a while what once floated our boat raises it less and less. This is the nature of temporal pleasure and feelings, unlike genuine magic or religious ecstasy which is rooted in the eternal.
Wicca therefore has continued. Indeed it has and grown mightily and continues to offer ecstatic experiences to thousands. That is why it is so popular. Many Wiccans have recognised the need for genuine religious, magical and ritual ekstasis and have incorporated elements of older, traditional esoteric systems into their circles. Other Wiccans however have sought to simply expand the limited ecstasy by incorporating sexual behaviour like BDSM and group sexual practices.
A Way Forward?
On a social level also we can see an expansion of the amount and intensity of limited ecstasies being sought. The drug culture has expanded and now is accepted in most western societies. Once alternative sexual practices, like BDSM are becoming normalised as is pornography. Our children spend six hours a day in some form or immersive entertainment or computer games. All of this is an attempt to be alive, an attempt to feel.
I am not sure if there is an easy way for our society to get out of this mess. Perhaps it still needs to get worse before we transcend our lobster nature and realise there is boiling water around us. However, I am convinced the divine and all its agents are constantly seeking to help us, if we seek their help. And boy do we need help.
So I am seeking and as part of that seeking I offer three simple suggestions, based on a return to some traditional ways of viewing the world and religious/magical ecstasy. The first and most important is that the result of any ecstatic experience should be increased compassion and love. This is the hallmark, included in every spiritual tradition, of an effective encounter with the numinous. If you are not more and more in love as the years go by, your spirituality needs adjusting.
Secondly, though impossible to explain and share, the ecstatic and the numinous must be made known. We need almost to advertise that ecstasy exists, that in can be found in surrender, in contemplation, communion and ritual. That it is deeper and longer lasting, more real than anything offered by the limited options of drugs, sex, entertainment and extremity.
Thirdly and finally, we need to find ways to encounter these experiences in a communal setting. This is often done in a closed esoteric lodge or mystical group. But I think we need to find safe ways to offer these options to the outsiders, those who cannot begin to guess at the love and immense presence of the One and the changes it engenders, simply because no one has ever told them correctly or without confusing and superfluous doctrinal accretions.