Jason Miller wrote a recent blog entry about tradition vs experimentation and it prompted me to do some thinking about the topic as well. If you've read my books you know I don't decry tradition per se, but I definitely favor experimentation. Nonetheless I think tradition is important. Tradition grounds us, provides us an awareness of where we've come from. Tradition provides the training in the principles. Tradition is useful because with it you have perspective on what's come before and how its worked and if you've done your work, you gain a solid understanding of magic.
Experimentation frees us from the limits of tradition, from the limits of doing something the way other people did it. Experimentation challenges us to look beyond what we know, to explore possible alternatives. Experimentation relies on a sound understanding of the principles of magic, but also challenges those principles through the very act of experimentation.
I'm an experimenter. I did my time with both ceremonial and ritual magic, and with any given system of magic that I learn about, I do my best to learn it as its practiced before I start making changes. Yet what thrills me is the cutting edge and doing something different. I respect that people can get measurable results by doing magic a specific way that others have done, but I've also gotten measurable results through my own work and the reason is simple. Magic operates on specific principles or rules and if you understand those rules the trappings don't matter.
But you'll say "The trappings do matter" They only matter because you choose to make them matter. you've read meaning into them and invested in belief in how they matter and as a result you need them. But experimentation challenges that and argues for making whatever props you want, or even doing it all without props. As long as you get a measurable result, that's what matters to most people. I'll add that as long as you can explain your process so that others can reproduce it and achieve similar results...then you're doing it right.
I look to tradition because I've used it to understand how magic works, and also to understand how people have limited themselves in their approach to magic. I've used experimentation to free myself of their limitations and to challenge my own as well. What I love about magic is there is no one true way to do it. And the people who try to sell you on one true way are fooling themselves. Their unwillingness to test their own limits ultimately causes them to fail. It doesn't even matter that they achieve measurable results, if all they ever do is stick with their own limited perspective on magic. In fact, its truly disappointing when you find such people. Their lack of perspective causes them to fail magic itself.
Magic isn't meant to be limited to one true way. Learn the traditions. They will benefit you. But experiment as well. Test yourself. The whole point of all this is to do more than just repeat what's already been done.