In a recent article where I talked about the differences between magick and mysticism, I said that the dark night of the soul wasn’t a crisis factor in the life and path of the magician. It is a real ordeal for the mystic, but not for the magician. Allow me to quote the pertinent sentence in that article, since it is going to be the topic for this article. (You can find that article here.)
“Magicians usually don’t experience the Dark Night of the Soul. They have plenty of other types of spiritual crises to deal with. I’ll talk about those in a future article.”
So, the time has come to talk about the fundamental spiritual crises in the career of the magician who is following the Western Mystery Tradition. I have determined that there are five major ones but there could others, although not quite as severe but no less difficult to resolve. These five trials are: fear, arrogance, indolence, grandiosity and hubris. These issues may seem innocent enough and certainly many people who are not magicians are afflicted by them. However, to the magician who is actively seeking to fully realize and unite his or her spirit with the absolute Godhead, these five trials are quite poisonous and deadly.
Unlike the mystic’s terrible “Dark Night of the Soul” these trials are forever ongoing and represent a potential pitfall to all magicians following the western path. What that means is that you don’t overcome one and never have to experience it again. These are not singular events, but they are singular issues that plague most magicians throughout their lives. The severity of these issues is dependent on the personality of the magician. In some cases a magician may have a much more difficult time resolving one of these key trials than any of the others. In some cases one or more of these trials may never become a pivotal issue in the life of the magician. In my opinion, this is the norm for the typical practicing magician - most of the trials are minor affairs except one of them becomes a really “big deal” at some point.
You could also assume that the more psychologically flawed magician will experience a series of spiritual crises involving many more of these trials than what would be typically expected, and that those crises will be more severe and difficult to resolve, if they can be resolved at all. Sometimes at least one of these five spiritual crises will be so severe that it will force the magician to cease all magical activity and make a hasty exit from being a real magician, or it could just stop cold all of the spiritual and magical progress that a magician has made over the years of practice.
Maturity and discipline are important antidotes to most of these trials, as well as openness, integrity, positive intent and personal objectivity. Yet it often seems that many magicians lack these mitigating qualities, and some seem to be far more flawed than the average person. You could say that magicians are colorful and unusually eccentric individuals, amusing to know and to socialize with, at least until they hit one of these trials and it causes them to undergo a spiritual crisis. Then they aren’t so amusing or fun to be with.
Failure to resolve one of these trials completely and to keep it in check is a certain prognosis for overall magical failure. Sometimes a magician must retire from magick for a while in order to allow his or her personality to resolve internal struggles and issues before attempting to continue. Often such a failure will transform a viable practicing magician into nothing more than an armchair magician, where he or she will attempt to hide and obscure this shameful fact from other magicians. Ironically, such an armchair magician will then begin to display still other excesses as he or she begins the slow, slippery, painful descent into illusion and later, self-delusion.
Now that we have discussed the importance of resolving these five trials, let us now examine each one in turn, and also discuss the pertinent manner in which a magician might overcome such a pitfall. All of these trials can be overcome with some effort, objectivity and even a bit of humility. Self study and analysis is an important key, and so is peer review.
Fear - this is really broken into different trials yet both are related. There is the fear of failure and also the fear of success. Often this issue reveals itself to someone who is more apt to read about magick than actually performing it. Such a one will have succumbed to either one of these fear-based trials. However, once the magical practitioner has experienced a successful working or two, then the fear of failure soon passes. A good mentor can help the beginning student overcome his or her fear of failure, and instill in them personal confidence and belief in the magical process. However, the fear of failure can haunt even the most experienced magical practitioner, and it can become so strong that it will cause him or her to be incapable of working magick.
Fear of success is more troubling and difficult to resolve. I have known a few occultists who have shown a great deal of fascination with magick but who would never work a single spell for any reason. The idea that magick is real and can actually make things happen is just too much for their world views to integrate. These kind of people are just not cut out to be magicians, and happily they usually know it. When someone like this engages with a group magical working they often claim to have experienced nothing of import, or sometimes the opposite happens, where it actually scared the living daylights out of them. My advice is to leave such individuals out of any teaching group or group working since they will only frustrate and annoy even the most advanced teacher.
Perhaps one of the most mitigating aids for the practicing magician who is afflicted by a fear of failure is to understand that not all magical workings will succeed, and that there can be many reasons for failure. While it’s easy to blame the tool, technique, timing, intention, or the will of the magician or that of the associated Godhead, sometimes the probability of something happening is just too low to make any effort successful. Also, all magical actions need to have associated mundane actions in order to properly bend the laws of probability. You can’t just work a spell and sit on your butt expecting the results to miraculously drop into your lap. Another consideration, which is seldom discussed, is that a single magical action, such as a working, may actually require a battery of workings performed over a longer period of time. Trying something just once and then giving up when it fails to produce the desired result reveals a certain amount of ambiguity within one’s intent and a lack of passion and discipline to see it through.
Arrogance - this is where power corrupts and intoxicates the practicing magician. Once magicians have demonstrated a certain competency in their art, and other magicians appear to admit that fact as well, then there is the possibility that they will start to think of themselves as superior to others. A magician who is succumbing to arrogance begins by assuming that non-practitioners are somehow inferior, and it later grows to include everyone else who is a practitioner. They will denigrate the practices and opinions of other magicians and elevate themselves above and beyond all other human beings. They will close themselves off from their peers and even their friends, lovers and family. I actually once knew a magician who referred to those who weren’t magicians as “mortals,” as if to say that he was somehow immortal. I didn’t try to put him to the test, but I did remark on his misplaced and extreme arrogance.
The experience of magical power can be quite intoxicating and personally gratifying, but all magicians must exercise a certain amount of restraint, and they must understand that the glory of magical power can actually be a distraction from more important things. The difference that magick makes in the material world is actually slightly better than average. While it is possible to produce a “black swan” moment, it is not very probable that such a thing will happen by itself, or even after a great deal of effort over a long period of time. The evolution of a magician causes him or her to realize that wisdom is more important in the long run than material gratification. Wisdom becomes in itself a powerful tool that helps the magician to deal with the burdens particular to his or her path. In time, power becomes far less important than spiritual realizations, insights and the accumulation of personal wisdom. The difference between a young magician and an old magician is that magical power is longer important or even a factor in magick to the mature practitioner. It often seems to be the proclivity of the young and immature magician, who fancies that power is the solution to all of life’s difficulties.
Indolence - this is a subtle issue that usually affects the undisciplined or the older and experienced magician. Fatigue, boredom, procrastination, excuses and idleness are the bane of anyone, but they can stop a magician’s progress dead in its tracks. While it is true that life can and often intervenes into the magician’s magical process, delaying and putting off important projects, it can also become something of a terrible barrier. After having worked magick over a long period of time, a magician can run into dry periods of inactivity, or an all-consuming activity in other areas of one’s life. This does happen, especially if the magician doesn’t have the privilege (or onerous burden) of being able to function as a magician all of the time.
However, like dealing with breaks in concentration during meditation (or ritual work), it is important to be able to pick things up again after the busy times are past. It is also important to maintain some kind of disciplined practice, even if it's just a few minutes a day, or some simple ritual celebrations briefly done over the weekend. Losing the groove of a magical discipline will require the magician to re-establish it, and that will not be easy to do. Inertia is always a force that magicians must reckon with when they seek to perform any kind of lengthy set of workings. It is pernicious and not so easy to overcome, but it is more often the trial of an older experienced magician than one who has just begun his or her magical journey.
Grandiosity - this trial is often much more obvious to others than one’s self. Because a magician is so engaged with his or her art, and with the extension of the self into Godhead, it becomes very easy to slip into a state of narcissistic ego-inflation. We are human after all, and we all suffer from human weaknesses and vices to a lesser and greater extent, but the petty ego can and does engage in magical phenomenon to the extent that it glorifies itself at the expense of anything and anyone else. We have all witnessed individuals who are elevated to higher classes or positions in life, and then observe as it all goes to their head. For those of us who have been in witchcraft covens, we have heard of or experienced first-hand spiritual leaders becoming egotistical and overbearing. Yet this also happens to the magician as well, and in fact, all too often! The intoxicating effect of personally and periodically experiencing spiritual phenomenon, and also directly engaging and assuming a Godhead, can and does completely go to one’s head.
Additionally, claiming great accolades and spiritual accomplishments can make you feel like a god amongst mortals, but the truth is that spiritual and magical accomplishments are relative and only make sense to the individual who has achieved them. Claiming to have crossed the Greater Abyss might impress your magician pals, but it’s something that can’t really be objectively evaluated, and often the one claiming it is possibly self-deluded. I have found that such high level accomplishments are usually so subjective and inexplicable that someone who has truly undergone them is seldom able to talk about them, let alone brag about them. Proof of such accomplishments is often subtle, and ironically they cause one to show a greater overall compassion, sensitivity and personal humility.
Grounding is very important in these situations where ego-inflation occurs, and also a bit of peer review helps, too. Other magicians can spot ego-inflation a mile away, but only if it’s someone else who is behaving so. Keeping oneself in an objective state is difficult, but certainly not impossible. Delusions of Godliness can be easily mitigated if one believes that everyone has within them an aspect of Deity, which the Hindus call the Atman. We are all equally a part and one with the absolute Godhead, so none is more gifted or entitled than another. If the spirits are bowing before you and telling you that you are indeed God Almighty, then you can sagely nod your head and reply “and so is everyone else.” Effectively dealing with this issue is perhaps one of the reasons why I believe that it is so important for each and every magician to have some kind of peer group to judge their work and objectify their experiences.
Hubris - this is the illusion of wisdom, or what I call, the false-wisdom acquired by dint of age. Over a long period of time each and every magician faces this trial, and if they fail, then they succumb to over-confidence and a belief in their own infallibility. This issue is usually accompanied by the statement “I can do anything” or “I can do no wrong.” These might sound silly to the average magician (and even more silly to the non-magician), but it represents a long period where the magician has either wittingly or unwittingly avoided being challenged by something or someone. He or she has become something of a fossil, and while it might be true that anything could be accomplished, nothing ever really is accomplished ever again.
After many years of piling up magical pedigrees and the personal accolades of others, it seems only natural for such an esteemed magician to just rest on his or her laurels and assume that he or she is infallibly competent. Whether by indolence or a long period of arrogance, sometimes a magician just succumbs to his or her own fame and glory. There doesn’t seem to be any need to be challenged nor does there appear to be any kind of formidable challenge on the horizon. Of course, this is an illusion, since there are always challenges and new things to discover or try.
Yet sometimes magicians begin to believe in their own social propaganda, and it becomes for them something of a final monument to their own supposed greatness. They have retired to the magical monastery and because there is nothing left to learn or try, they ossify and dissolve into the legend they have become and also, I might add, the delusion of who they are. Their words are pompous, full of obvious and trite “truthiness” and their active spiritual and magical practice ceases to be relevant or even useful to others. In fact it just ceases to be altogether. Such individuals hide behind their published works and media personalities while their inner worlds crumble and fall to waste.
Eventually, the world catches up to them and shows them to be shallow, incapable of change and ineffective curiosities of a by-gone time. If they are greatly challenged by someone or something, they naturally fold up and attempt to escape to their place of retreat, although not without experiencing a fair amount of humiliation for themselves and their followers. I have seen this happen a number of times to famous people in witchcraft, paganism, magick and the occult. It is sad and poignant, but it isn’t necessarily a product of old age; it is just hubris, plain and simple.
The way to escape this plight is to never give up growing or seeking out new challenges. When you have mastered a particular path or tradition, then move on to another tradition where you know very little. Never be afraid of being humbled or experiencing what it’s like to be a beginner all over again, because you will profit greatly by periodically having this experience. Additionally, having a real peer group (or a group of equals) is far better than having a group of sycophantic followers. While a peer group will tell you when your ideas are stale or that you are a presumptuous old windbag, followers will never engage in such a discourse simply because they want something and have to be ingratiating in order to get it. A peer group has nothing to lose if they tell you that are suffering from hubris, and that you, so to speak, need a good swift kick in the ass to get moving again.
So, for that reason, I prefer a peer group. If I take on students, I quickly let them know that I am just a student like them. I also tell them that it is likely that they will out do me and acquire greater knowledge than I have ever done if they at least start at the point where I am right now. They can stand on my shoulders and push the envelope of occult knowledge to even greater heights than I ever did, standing on the shoulders of other great men and women who I learned from in my past.
Another important thing to realize is that you are never really done with your studies or practices. There’s always something new to learn, experience or realize, and nothing stays the same - everything is always changing. Because of this, we, too, must change, always and continuously until our last days. I hope to be still working magick, reading, studying and writing to the very last day of my life. I hope someday in the future, while taking my last breath of life, to be saying to myself, “but there is so much more to learn and master, if only I could live a little bit longer.” Thus to quote the infamous starship captain on Galaxy Quest, “never give up and never surrender!”