Saturday, September 3, 2016

Tinfoil Hats and the Folly of Magicians

One of the more common questions that practicing magicians usually have to field from those who are either interested or just curious is whether or not magic is harmful to an individual. Can magic drive a person insane? Can it be the very cause of self-destruction and even death? Can magic kill a person?

Such a series of questions open up the door to a deep inquiry about individual and collective psychology. I don’t really feel particularly qualified to have an expert opinion on this subject, or at least one that is medically and scientifically based. Psychology is the key to all of these questions because of the fact that magic is something that is perceived and experienced. It doesn’t actually possess any kind of material qualities that could cause it to be labeled dangerous, toxic or otherwise harmful to an individual or a group.

We know that ideas can cause all sorts of harm in our society; they can cause harm to the individuals who espouse them or to the victims of those who seek to act on them. It could be said that ideas can be dangerous or that they could even kill people. Yet in this case an idea is functioning as an agent to spur action on the part of the people who believe it. An idea merely by itself can neither kill or harm someone. It can negatively impact their mind if it is taken in a certain way. So, psychology is the background where someone or a group could be harmed by magic, either by practicing it or by being the target of someone else’s expertly directed ill-will.

However, from an experiential standpoint, I think that I can present a number of practical considerations about magic that should be able to answer these questions about whether it is harmful to the practitioner and the public at large.

Problems and Practical Approaches to Magical Experiences

First of all, anyone who seeks to work magic brings into that study and practice all of their psychological virtues and flaws. If the statement that one out of five individuals suffers from some form of mental illness in our country is true then it would also be more or less true about occultists and magical practitioners. If a person is suffering from mental illness, whether they know it or not, then the magic that they perform will be tainted and qualified by the effects of that illness.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, magic is a very subjective experiential practice. Magicians experience a lot of internalized psychological phenomena that also powerfully impacts their emotions, beliefs, ideals and motivations. It can make a person feel like they have an exclusive and elevated perspective on nearly everything. Profound experiences seem to expand one’s self definition and also one’s self valuation. Magic is prone to making the practitioner experience what could be called ego-tripping. A magician’s sense of self-importance can become expanded to the point of ridiculousness. This is because everything that a magician experiences must be carefully considered and interpreted in order for it to be useful. 

Some magical experiences, however powerful and grandiose they might be, can be nothing more than a kind of meaningless romp that actually has little value or import. This can happen to even the most sober practitioner, since “magical power” affects the emotions and this can lead to a case of motivational reasoning short circuiting critical thinking. Motivational thinking can cause anyone to build a “house of cards” and think that it is an enduring edifice, when actually, it is an illusion, or worse, a delusion.

Another important consideration is that the practice of magic doesn’t reveal truths unless one is already disposed toward seeing them. Magical power is like a kind of drug that inflates the ego and triggers an intense emotional response. While in the “state” of working magic, a person needs to understand that the experience itself has no real meaning or value outside of the context of that working until after the magical operation is completed, and one has emotionally and psychically decompressed. This is particularly true when using the energy model of magic. 

Using the spirit model can produce similar results, since the revelations and manifestation of a target spirit can have the same kind of ecstatic emotional response as working with magical energy. However, the trigger for all forms of magic is some kind of self-generated ecstasy, where one surrenders to the “power” of the moment and where the normal determinants of consciousness are greatly augmented. This is why I like working magic, because it makes me feel very high and it is like an orgasmic release. I do have to return to earth and then make sense of it all, but the exalted emotions are quite exquisite.

Perhaps the most important mechanism that every magician must learn to master early in their career is to ground themselves after a working. Retaining the “high” of magic, while it might serve some kind of perverse pleasure or even an imagined desire to keep the vision intact, it can actually cause a lot of problems for the magician. Magical workings are a cyclic process, especially a magical working that produces an internal and transformative change, which I call an ordeal. The magical working cycle has a beginning (preparations), commencement (circle casting, focusing, declaration of intent), incremental processes (magical ritual work, invocations, exhortations), climax (magical results directly experienced and projected), conclusion (closing, sealing, banishing) and then grounding.

A grounding should function as a form of objectification, where the very subjective experiences of magic are brought back to earth and into the context of the mundane world. This cycle is integral to many kinds of psychological processes, and it’s archetypal representation is the Hero’s Journey, or the cycle of initiation itself. Therefore, to omit the act of grounding is to also omit the power of objectification, which is very problematical. I have talked previously about grounding, in both articles and in my books. I believe that it is critically important.

Finally, after the magical working is complete and the magician has fully decompressed and had time to ponder and meditate on his or her experiences, only then does the real of work of magic begin. The magician must carefully and critically examine the results of the working and make some judgements about it. Writing up all of one’s magical experiences in a journal is important, but it is not absolutely necessary. The real work is to derive meaning and significance out the experience.

Magical experiences that the magician has undergone are distilled, examined with a critical mind and even researched if necessary. In order to do this, the magician needs to be dispassionate, objective, and most importantly, skeptical. He or she should examine the magical working and all of its associated experiences as if it were something experienced by someone else. This kind of dispassionate thinking will greatly help the magician to understand what happened during the working, and more importantly, what did it signify. It might even be important to perform the same rite at a future date and measure that experience against what was originally experienced.

Having recourse to a peer group or even performing an intense working with other magicians can help one more objectively judge a magical working. If you think that your magical working revealed that you are the true Messiah, but your friends strongly disagree, then you might be well served by taking their advice and re-examining what you experienced.

Not all ritual workings are either successful or meaningful when examined from an objective viewpoint. If you are working magic to just make something happen and it turns out the way you wanted it to, then that is all that one can say about it. It doesn’t mean that you are a god or that you are better than everyone else because your magical operation was successful! However, much of the magic that I have worked did a lot more than just make something happen, and I had to distill and objectify it in order to give it meaning and significance.

I have found that over time even some of my more vaunted magical workings were actually communicating something to me that I either couldn’t see or understand at the time; but reviewing them today makes that missing insight quite clear. Sometimes we are too close to our own psychic processes and that makes it difficult to properly objectify them. Thus, time and distance helps to confer a greater wisdom and understanding to one’s own magical and spiritual processes. It also helps to have someone else not so involved with your process to look over your notes and discuss with you the nature and meaning of your magical workings. Without this very important element of objectivity a magician can devolve into illusion and delusion.

Dealing with Delusions

Even taking all of these factors into consideration and effectively implementing them will not necessarily keep a magician from engaging in delusions. If a magician suffers from any form of mental illness then he or she will be adversely affected by it. Certainly, someone who suffers from mental illness will find it more difficult to objectify his or her magical experiences. He might make excuses to himself and shy away from revealing to his peers what he is experiencing or undergoing. Without the ability to distill and objectify a magical experience, a magician becomes subject to illusions and delusions.

Magic can be a great enabler of self delusion if it is not properly subjected to the rational and objective mind. Over time, these individual delusions can coalesce into full-blown paranoid delusions that erase the border between what is real and what is imaginary. While it is important to have a very vivid and powerful imagination in order to be proficient at working magic, it is also important to live a balanced life and to know the difference between reality and fantasy. When the borderline between these worlds becomes confused or destroyed then that is when magic starts to have a regressive affect on the magician’s mind. Over time this could, if other factors are active, cause a complete mental breakdown - a descent from borderline disorders to complete psychosis.

Therefore, magic, if practiced by someone who is mentally ill can lead to psychosis and the destruction of the self. It can also impact outsiders who are magical targets in the same manner by attacking their weaknesses and bringing out a nascent mental illness. However, magic is not dangerous if the person who encounters or engages with it isn’t also suffering from a borderline disposition or a psychotic malady.

What this means is that you have to be already suffering from mental illness in order for magic to be considered dangerous. A person who is unable to maintain a sharp distinction between reality and fantasy shouldn’t engage in magical workings. He or she should also avoid contact with magic and magical practitioners and when faced with such encounters, to seek out both spiritual help from a qualified source and special psychological counseling. Only those who are strong enough to maintain this important boundary between reality and fantasy should seek to engage with the magical arts. Because magic in particular plays with the “As If” components of the mind, it is important for one to be flexible and well grounded in order to be able to function in both the mundane and magical worlds.

Where the “tin hat” meme comes into play as a part in the practice of magic is when a body of ungrounded and raw magical experiences impacts one’s sense of self to such a degree that paranoid delusions invade one’s conscious mind. Emotional based motivational reasoning can completely replace one’s ability to be objective and grounded in reality. It can shunt one’s ability to reason and critically think, thereby making the most outlandish presumptions into emotionally determined facts.

This happens quite often in the areas of religion and politics to supposedly normal people, so imagine what a rarefied magical atmosphere would do to someone who is not equipped to handle it. Since magical power inflates people’s sense of self importance and significance, it can, if not counteracted with a degree of objectivity, make people feel like they are the very center of their psychic universe. It can make magicians feel as if they are almighty God, or it can make them feel that their exalted specialness has become the target of a maligned and evil world conspiracy. Under such rare but critical situations, magicians could lose all ability to recognize the real world and their humble place within it.

From a rational perspective we are never separated or isolated from the world at large. We are, in fact, a small part of that world. If we are not acting as a known public persona acting on the world stage then we are confined to our small, microcosmic part of that world. However exalted or great we might feel when we are at the climax of a magical working, we are just simply “who we are” when we come back to earth. It reminds me of the cartoon character Popeye, who said “I am what I am, and that’s ALL that I am!” It is another way of saying, “We are who we are, but we are also limited to that moment and persona in time and space.”

Magic also has boundaries and built-in limitations, although they are often more expansive than the mundane world would admit. If we cannot understand nor act in accordance with such limitations and boundaries then we have begun the journey to self-delusion. Things can change, undoubtably, and such a journey can be thwarted by practical insights or by the intervention of other people. However, illusion and delusion are “opiatic” mechanisms in magic that help to keep the magical “high” somewhat intact, but they also cause a loss of objectivity and produces an effect that causes the self to regress.

Regression vs. Progression

How can we judge regression? How can we judge positive personal evolution? How do we know when a magical practice is causing us or someone we know to be regressive? How can we tell if our magical practice is actually causing us to be progressive? Curiously, we can use a simple test to determine which side we fall on. 

Just ask yourself these questions or consider them for someone you know. Is the magic being worked causing me to become more clear, grounded, mature, centered and rational? Do I seem more compassionate, curious about others and have a sense of humor about myself? Am I open minded, emotionally connected and empathetic with people? Am I often composed, relaxed and seemingly imperturbable? These traits are the effects, in my opinion, of someone who is properly practicing the art of magic, and who is progressing.

If the magic being practiced causes one to behave in an obviously immature manner then it is likely that the practitioner is regressing. Do they act childish, do they seem unstable or emotionally volatile? Do they often appear manic, depressed, or do they declare fantastical things about themselves or the world that they live in? If someone acts in this way for a sustained period of time whether in private or in public then they might be suffering from mental illness. 

In my long years of meeting and talking with magical practitioners I have met more individuals who show some regressive tendencies than progressive ones. It seems to be the rule that true masters are rare and they often seem ordinary and normal, and for this reason, they are often unrecognized, perhaps even to themselves.

Conclusion and Reminders

We can therefore now make the tacit judgement that we are all prone to illusions and delusions, since it is one of the risks and problems when engaging with a magical practice. Grounding and objectivity, along with peer review, will help us avoid the worst tendencies that magical experiences and the orgasmic impact of magical power can cause. We also can judge, hopefully, when either we or one of our peers is consistently behaving in a regressive manner. We can also understand that many of us are affected by psychological weaknesses and flaws. It is just part of being human. 

We can also judge both the public personas and also our personal and private encounters with magicians who have obviously begun the devolving process of regression. Some of these individuals are even promoting themselves as occult and magical leaders. However, armed with our knowledge about how someone should comport themselves when actually evolving as a human being, we can avoid having contact with these individuals and their organizations that are functionally regressive. 

It is important not only to guard our own mental health when practicing magic, but it is important to engage with peers and other occultists who are progressive and cogent, and who can actually add to a person’s magical evolution instead of detracting from it.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. One of the key points about all of this is that one person in four has some form of mental illness. That's a huge number of people. Generally speaking, depression is the most common form, and true delusions usually only show up when you're dealing with schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder, which are more serious and more rare - maybe 1-2% of the population each.

    But that's still a huge number of people. If one person in fifty is schizophrenic, statistically speaking just about everybody knows a couple of people who have it. The same goes for bipolar disorder.

    That being said, the numbers clearly support your supposition here that magick doesn't make people mentally ill, they were mentally ill to begin with.

    Now I have seen some evidence that people suffering from mental illness can improve their conditions by working magick or other forms of spiritual practice. The problem these is that it's a difficult path to walk and anybody trying to do that needs to be especially careful. These are some good suggestions along those lines.

  2. Some Terence Mckenna quotes:

    "I can remember an experience I had years ago, it was in the Tolman Library at the University of California, which is the psych library, and I was looking up some drug or something, and I just saw a book and I pulled it off the shelf, a book about schizophrenia. And it said, “the typical schizophrenic lives in a world of twilight imagining, marginal to his society, incapable of holding a regular job, these people live on the fringes, content to drift in their own self-created value systems.” {And I thought,} That’s it! That’s it! Now I understand!…"

    "A shaman is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands and thousands of years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon."

    Some questions which can be found on regular schizophrenia tests, and how they compare to the experience of magickal practitioners:

    "You occasionally feel that others control what you think and feel."

    Magickal attack doesn't happen too often, but most of us agree that it can happen, so this would be the first check. Also who are those others? Are they my spirit familiars? Because they influence what I think and feel. And on a more mundane level things like advertisement and propaganda are definitely good examples of others trying to control how I think and feel and sometimes they might even succeed.

    "You sometimes believe that someone is monitoring every move you make."

    Yes, my spirit guides or familiars again and my HGA probably and hopefully watch and guide my every move. So check.

    "Sometimes, you think that you might be able to predict the future."

    Future divination is part of standard magickal practice. Another check.

    "You sometimes taste, touch, or smell things that others don’t experience or notice."

    Maybe I'm the odd one out here because most of us probably don't and this is probably kind of on the fringe of standard magickal practice. But I'm definitely not the only one who is under the assumption that I have felt various forms of ethereal energies before several times, like my own energy field. I'm not gonna check this one but have included it because some of us do.

    "You sometimes experience unrealistic thoughts, like you feel you have the power to destroy the whole world."

    Your article already admits that we often do, especially if we're not grounded (and especially in the beginning stages it is more difficult to remain grounded), so this is a check.

    "Sometimes you might hear or see things that others are not able to hear or see."

    Hell yes. Skrying, traveling in spirit vision, astral travel etc. Check.

    "Sometimes you feel you have magical powers."

    All the time though. That doesn't really make me feel special however (I guess it can be special in a I have worked hard to compose beautiful music which other people seem to like kind of way. That doesn't necessarily mean I value myself as an elite human being compared to others in any way.) But it's a check.

    The point I'm trying to make is that according to mainsteam psychology and psychiatry we are all as mad as a tinfoil hat here. I agree with a lot of things said in your article but don't necessarly agree with where you draw the line between progressive and regressive. Going through things like depression or the dark night of the soul etc. can contribute to growing as a person and as a magickian, if dealt with in the right way. Also I don't think there's anything wrong with a child-like mind and more magickal practitioners could use one. That doesn't mean we can't be mature when we need to be. Both Gandhi and Trump have been called childish. One of them is considered progressive, the other one is not.

    1. There is a difference though and a qualified psychiatrist knows this. One aspect of diagnosing schizophrenia is that a person's beliefs have to be examined in the context of their culture/spiritual practice/ etc. All mental illnesses are basically just extreme/disruptive versions of normal human behavior. I know someone who has schizophrenia and it is pretty easy to tell when he talks about esoteric subjects that he's on a whole other level, I believe he has likely had genuine mystical experiences but he's unable to integrate them with everyday reality. He has no boundaries, is nice to everyone, will give money to anyone on the street who asks, it's like walking around with Jesus. Put it this way, I can tell from your answers that you aren't delusional, everything you are referencing is part of a known spiritual tradition that has a frame of reference. Were my friend to answer these questions he would go on about all these bizarre beliefs and experiences that have little to no context outside his subjective reality. The difference is that the magician consciously knows he is playing around with perception and engaging in practices to bring about particular experiences, the schizophrenic just has weird shit going on and doesn't know how to process it.

  3. I agree that a magickal diary is a bit overrated, I do not write down daily in it as, I feel it is useless. I usually do 1-2 rituals on a daily basis and do not feel the need to write about it. It would be like writing about daily meals regularly, “I had a burger and it was well done, very tasty, no indigestion “etc... I write down when I get that feeling that something special happened, either during ritual, meditation or dream. That way, I do not have to go through pages of useless info before finding something worth looking for.

    I think that delusion is not something that affects only magickians, it is a flaw of the ego. For example; simply buying a guitar and pulling a few cords does not make you an international rock star! To practice magick (within any system) does not make you anything you are not, it just helps make you a better person, to come closer to your full potential.