In with the new, out with the old

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I don't subscribe much to tradition or sticking with classical approaches to magic, just because everyone else has done them ad infinitum. At a certain point, a lot of my skepticism boils down to the fact that we're relying on outdated information or wishing to be part of ancient culture so we don't have to deal with the ugly reality in front of us.

A while back I mentioned that I don't use the classical model of the five elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Spirit. It's an outdated information and categorization based off Aristotle's observation of the world around him, some 2,500 years ago. It worked for him then. It even worked for a while after that. Now its outdated. People can still use it and obviously they do, but why not change it up? What is it we are really holding on to?

The majority of resistance I've encountered has usually boiled down to: Don't change what's already there. It works and all you're doing is reinventing the wheel. And maybe they are right. Maybe I am reinventing the wheel by not sticking with what's tried and true. But my resistance to what's tried and true is why settle for the wheel you've been provided. Why not upgrade it? Why not experiment with it?

R.J. Stewart says the following in Sphere of Art 2:

While our huge spiritual and magical revival, from the late 19th century to the present day has liberated many from the suppressive tyranny of authoritarian religion, it has also created an artificial comfort zone of false, or at best harmless and reassuring, pseudo-knowledge. The deeper esoteric traditions have been glossed over, in a process that has steadily created a new body of dogma no less restrictive than that of religion...signs of such dogma are most easily visible in the many boiler plate books on chakras, Wicca, and more recently neo-shamanism, repeating the basic material over and over...After three generations or more of basic material within our overall magical/spiritual revival, material that has, in some streams, noticeably rigidified over the years, the time is right for further work and radical reassessment.

I'm all for further work and radical reassessment. I'm all for doing something different for the sake of exploration and experimentation. I get the need to have a solid foundation. I used the classic model of elements at one time...but at a certain point, you've got to look around and start getting curious about what you can change and experiment with. Information in disciplines evolves and the same should hold true for magic. If we only stick with the way its always been done at a certain point it just becomes another form of religious dogma and doctrine.

My radio interview with occult of personality is now available. You can go here to listen.

Tradition vs Experimentation

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.

Liberation and Tradition

The value of any transcendent tradition should be found within its liberating qualities. A tradition, of any sort, has no other ultimate value. The use of tradition for tradition's sake is a perversion, a tool of suppression.

From The UnderWorld Initiation (affiliate link) by R.J. Stewart

I've just started reading this book, but I found this paragraph to be tantalizing because of what it says that a magical tradition should do, i.e. provide some form of liberation or freedom through the magical work a person does. That theme is present in a variety of different occult subgenres. Chaos magic advocates for it, as does Thelema, but the danger within any subgenre is the blind adherence to tradition because that's the way it's been done and that's how we should do it.

The idea of examining a tradition or practice of any kind for its liberating qualities is something I agree with, because ideally any magical working you do will be meaningful in a personal way that improves your life by freeing you of limitations either imposed on you by other people or self-imposed due to your own circumstances. When a tradition fails, it is because it actually imposes limitations in the form of dogma and non-questioning. It's easy to fall into those traps, particularly if you are in a group setting and want to "belong" to the group, but when such belonging becomes the priority, the liberation the tradition might offers falls to the wayside in favor of trying to fit into what you think others want.

One of the reasons I've pushed for experimentation with magic is to get out of such group think dynamics. Its good to work with people, when you do so with a spirit of inquiry and acceptance that the experience one person has doesn't need to apply to everyone else, to be valid and useful for that person. Experimentation encourages the idea that magic is best experienced in an environment where a person can try an idea out without getting shut down. When people try to shut you down, it is usually because they feel threatened by your desire to liberate your preconceptions by challenging them through experience. They may feel that by challenging your own preconceptions, you challenge their own, but this is projection on their part, done as a way of preserving a cherished image they want to cling to, without recognizing that the value of experience is that it allows us to shatter what we hold onto, in order to discover how much it may have held us back.

The balance between tradition and experimentation

I've always been a big believer in experimentation when it comes to magic, but I've also always believed that you need to have a solid foundation in order to experiment. The person who experiments without a firm understanding of magical principles won't get very far, and I don't know even know if you could call the magical work experimental, if there isn't a firm foundation in work. The magician is someone who has made the effort to learn how other people have practiced magic, and incorporated those practices into his/her life, but has also decided that just relying on tradition alone isn't enough. S/he recognizes the value of experimentation and innovation as a way of advancing one's understanding of the world, and also one's spiritual practice and how it applies to the world.

In my own spiritual practices, I've always tried to find a balance between experimentation and tradition. While I definitely think experimentation is important, experimentation without foundation won't get you very far. This is why it's important to do the research, to learn the skills, and then look at how you can improve on them, or what new directions you can take them in.

I don't believe in mindlessly adhering to tradition for the sake of tradition. Such dogmatism leads to fanaticism, and also ends up causing a spiritual tradition to stagnate. This doesn't mean practices should be disregarded or tossed aside, but if a person never tries to innovate or experiment at some point s/he will stagnate. I see this occur a lot with people who try to emulate the life of someone else or only do magic the way the book tells you to.

The magician is someone who tests the magical practices s/he performs and looks for ways to improve on his/her practice. It's not about cutting corners, but about being methodical and revising your process in favor of improving on it.

Learn from tradition and what others did. Build a firm foundation, and then...challenge it, experiment and evolve. This is my approach to magic. It's not the stumbling of the fool, but rather the measured pace of the magician who recognizes that magic isn't about repeating what others have done, but learning what others have done and improving on it. But remember the fool has intuition and sometimes will find something the magician wouldn' take a risk sometimes and try something different...the experience will definitely teach you.