Discrimination and teachers in magic

Modern magical training at the apprentice level often includes the need for discrimination and discernment – the virtue of the basal Sephira, Malkuth, on the Tree of Life. I’ve discussed this previously a little in this post.

We are told Neophytes must develop the ability to be able to discern all sorts of things: authentic teachers vs nutters, healthy or unhealthy groups, good material or bad etc. This seems all well and good. But consider the following online response to a video I had linked to. The respondent wrote:

…it made good sense to me – but I still need to work out if that’s because it conforms to my beliefs or because it is true.

And here we hit a snag. Since our perception of truth is just that, perception, how can we be sure are not simply viewing something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because it confirms our own preconceptions? Even if there is an outside, immutable truth, as the esoteric traditions assert, it is always (at the apprentice level) filtered through our own personality consciousness. A conundrum indeed 🙂

What I like about the response above is the surrender of the ego, the acceptance by the respondent that she could be wrong – even though it feels right. I am probably losing what few New Age readers I have right now – but let’s press on!

This willingness to dethrone the ego is a mirror, a microcosm of the entire process of spiritual unfoldment. To have such an awareness at the apprentice level then sets up the whole process of spiritual unfolding. Just as the first layer of oranges in a box determines the rest of the layers, how we are as magical apprentices determines the rest of our unfoldment and magic.

This ties in with one of the functions of the traditional magical apprentice vow concerning the hidden knowledge: I desire to know in order to serve. Now the idea of selfless motivation for magic is quite rightly criticised by some wise folk in the magical community – I’ve just read an excellent commentary on this theme and power by one of the senior GD folk around.

If we are serving others, we are consciously moving outside our ego boundary. This changes and effects us, helping us drop and destroy the facade of false identities we run around with – unless we use service as another false identity! And, like so many Neophyte processes, this can be referred back to the symbol of the point in the circle – our locus of interest moving from the centre to the periphery. So the actual function of the oath to serve is a potent magical tool, and in effect mirrors the apprentice stage, in GD terms Neophyte to Philosophus.

This apprentice stage task, to let go of who we think we are and to balance ourselves ready for the adept awareness of who we may be, is a precious and fragile thing. Since we do not, cannot know who we are, we cannot in actuality rely on our own inner discernment. This is bloody obvious if we think about it. Yet, so many groups, circles, teacher and even magical Orders promote the idea that we can, through our feelings or intuition know what is right, and true for us at any stage of our unfoldment. This is not quite the case. Let’s look at it Qabalistically.

By definition the magical apprentice stage is focused on the personality Sephrioth – Malkuth through Netzach. The Sephira of the self, Tiphareth, is not yet fully functioning or able to be brought into conscious and consistent action. If it could, we would not be apprentices 🙂

The personality triangle is centred on Yesod, which in this case is the sphere of reaction, as opposed to consciousness in Tiphareth. Our modes of knowing the world, via intellectual evaluation (Hod), emotional apprehension (Netzach) and sensation (Malkuth) are all filtered through our Yesod. This is the hallmark of the ‘natural man’ in GD terms (borrowing from St Paul). The task of the apprentice is to realise this, become aware of the false ‘I’ in Yesod and balance the personality ready for some rude awakenings as an adept.

So if we were to use only inner discernment as an apprentice we’d be well and truly snookered. We’d be judging from a false self, without all the awareness and knowledge of Tiphareth. This is where another outer form of discernment is required. This involves, like the oath to serve, looking outside and beyond ourselves. Specifically in the case of magic, it involves being held by a teacher and/or a tradition.

Now, the word ‘hold’ here does not just mean a cosy, warm, snuggy cuddle. The teacher also draws us back from danger and pins us down in a sometimes violent struggle. By being guided, admitting we do not know it all, we look elsewhere – to the wisdom of our teacher and our tradition. The teacher functions at the adept level and together with the tradition they give us a ‘bridge’ to these levels, which allows our Hod and Netzach to be influenced  by Geburah and Chesed respectively (through Mem and Kaph).

With the guidance of our teacher our intellectual evaluation is informed by the power and limiting blessings of Geburah – allowing us to cut through the sludge and create boundaries, to be able to see what is true or not. Our emotional apprehension is informed by the brightness of compassion in Chesed (compassion does NOT mean soft or weak, but can be tough as nails), so we may recognise where there is love, harmony and beauty. Again, this method of discerning – by the grace of our teacher  – moves us beyond ourselves and slowly breaks down the notions of who we are.

So in a nutshell, we cannot do it on our own.

These days however the cult and valorisation of the individual and the ready availability of magical material means lots of folk have different ideas. Not that’s there anything wrong with that. I guess. Thinking you can do things on your own is fine; but it is NOT how the magical tradition is structured. The need for tradition and/or teacher is really clear. As shown, the acceptance of this is a crucial part of dethroning the ego.

Back when I was lad, we had bugger all books and internet thingies. So whatever we could find we valued. Including our teachers. And really it did not, should not, matter if we like them or not. Personal tastes are just that – personal, filtered through our Yesod, the very sphere we are trying to break free from (but never transcend). To walk away from a teacher because of personal taste simply increases the ego’s power. To find, accept and learn from a teacher by means that upsets the ego, such as travelling distances, being uncomfortable, having to argue with them over politics etc, means we are moving our consciousness away from our comfort zones and thus our false self. This is why some of the worst teachers are sometimes the best.

We are however lovely beasts and will often come up with ALL sorts of reasons to chuck in a tradition or give a teacher the boot. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to stick with a tradition or teacher  until the adept level at least. Unless of course they reveal themselves as loonies – and sadly, there’s plenty around. But in general, one should stay the apprentice course the whole way through. Consume the complete enchilada, despite misgivings and inner urges – our inner here, by definition, is Yesod.

There are many positive ‘social’ reasons for staying the course as well as magical ones – adept teachers are real people who have invested time, money and energy in their students. To throw that all away because of ‘inner’ promptings is often simply silly and downright rude. Some words of wisdom from Gareth Knight on this matter, lest we judge our teachers too harshly:

I recall a heartfelt remark by Arthur Chichester when Warden of the Society of the Inner Light  saying – “if you see an adept who seems to be in a mess – it could well be somebody else’s mess.” … One thing is for sure, being in charge of an esoteric group with any clout, let alone starting one up, is fraught with problems such as you would not believe. I speak from personal experience over many years. Never mind how many angels could balance on the point of a needle, try doing it yourself, being the fulcrum of a swinging balance between inner and outer planes, and you will never readily criticise a leader of any group again.

Finally, another crucial point is that magical training is not supposed to be fun, happy or even comfortable. I am reminded of that great green guru, Master Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back teaching Luke the way of the Force. Luke is determined to do his best, confidently declaring, “I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.” To which Master Yoda replies:

You will be. You will be.

Thanks 🙂



  1. Nick Farrell · October 12, 2012

    While I agree with what you say, recently I have been reacting against a “tail wagging the dog” mindset in students. The belief is that they have the right to control the teacher and if the teacher says something they do not like, then it is up to the teacher to fall into the student’s paradigm. Falling into a paradigm is dangerous as there are very few rescue agencies who have the equipment to pull you out,
    The internet gives the illusion that there are lots of occult schools out there and if a teacher says something you don’t like you can just find someone else. Using the star wars analogy, Luke would simply tell Yoda where to shove his x-wing because he is cranky and does not fit into his definition of a “leader.” This means that if a student gets into a magical crisis (which is normal) they will project it onto the teacher (also normal) but have a row and leave rather than resolve it. The have a row and leave is something that in the days of DF or Whare Ra was not an option. In those days if you found a group you stuck to it because your oaths etc bound you to it.
    You certainly did not run two magical groups at the same time to see which would be best for you in the long term.

  2. dirkt · October 12, 2012

    Basically agree, but it still leaves the real problem untouched for the newcomer: How to discriminate between the loonies and a reasonable teacher/teaching? There are a lot of people out there beside the charlatans, which consider themselves teachers and which actually may have a lot of knowledge but are severely lacking in wisdom. No one to help you there, but your own common sense and gut feeling. And as that willl need it’s time to develop in the magical world of smoke and mirrors, you’ve just entered, you’re most likely prone to make some pretty bad decisions first. But without mistakes, no learning curve. Consider it part of the process 😉

  3. Andrew · October 12, 2012

    I wrote a lengthy response to this, and the more I wrote, the more I found I needed to explain or justify the opinion I was trying to hold. And the more I did that, the more it became a narrative of me — intellectual, emotional, sense-perceptual. As it got longer and longer, and more involved, I thought, wait, this is exactly the point, isn’t it?

    And so I delete (or rather, save to a text file for later, so I can understand the false self’s nefarious ways on closer analysis).

    With regard to being a leader of an esoteric group… YES. I was a lay chaplain for twelve years, preaching and leading a reluctant congregation of teens. It wasn’t particularly esoteric, but even operating between inner and outer worlds in that exoteric context left me a mess. “I am the truth that hates the fact that unjust deeds are done in the world.” Reading your words, Peregrin, after re-reading that this morning…. yes. So familiar.

    As I write this, Starhawk’s words are beside the comment box where I type. “How does my spiritual practice and daily life serve the earth? How does my spiritual practice and daily life affect the poorest third of humanity? How will my spiritual practice and daily life affect the generations to come in the future?”

    And the answer is, Answer hazy. Ask again later.

  4. Josephine McCarthy · October 12, 2012

    This is an interesting and important discussion, particularly in today’s magical climate. Yes I agree that the idea of flipping between teachers dependant upon whether you agree with them or not, is a modern problem.. but it is also a filter. In days gone by, you were accepted as a student and you stuck through thick and thin. The advantage of that is you become solid and grounded, but it also can become ossified and closed minded. On the other hand, wandering a lone path can be a harsh yet interesting teacher, but it does not develop grounded stability.
    I think the key is not the teacher but the student. If the teacher teaches in a way that they know to be true and do their best but do not pander to the student, then the students who can gain the most from their teaching style will stick. Similarly, if the teacher does not vary in their path of service as an adept, then the silly students are filtered out naturally: they move on so you do not have to deal with them.
    We are in interesting times and has our culture changes, so how the magic is passed on changes. Consciousness has become far more fluid, so for some, learning within a lodge is too restrictive. For others it is a godsend. I think it is important to see the different learning styles, different teaching styles, and recognise the need for both.
    Don’t forget, even though magical/priesthood skills were taught in temples and lodges, that was only really the outer court stuff. For deeper magic the student was given 1 key and they had to go off and find the other 99 for themselves. it is a self filtering system. Those who are lazy, incompetent, imbalanced or just a wrong fit fall by the wayside and true adept material flourishes.
    These days, many of the lodges set a mountain of criteria for prospective students… this disengages the inner magical filters which in turn puts a deeper burden on the adept/teacher. Letting the inner lot do the filtering, so you teach who ever finds you and stays to do the work.
    Then there are the commercial lodges/teachers who mop up the fools with money…. and finally the play acting lodges/groups with fancy names, secret passwords and funny outfits who vomit out ‘mystical magical texts’ that are just clever sounding poetic babble.
    Nick: re oaths…. if a neophyte has to take an oath, then they are not ready for deeper work. When the student becomes immersed in the work properly, the need for oaths becomes irrelevant… oaths are nothing, action is everything.

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