Saturday, February 9, 2019

Mending Cartesian Duality in Magical Practices

Recently, my good and wise friend, Scott Stenwick, wrote an article (found here) that took issue with what I stated in my previous article about two of the religious and spiritual objectives in the training of a ritual magician. These have to do with establishing a magical persona and erecting a temporary and artificial boundary between the material world and the magical and spiritual world. He stated that such contrivances are unnecessary and could lead to establishing a kind of unresolvable Cartesian duality. I wanted to reply to his critique, but my point is that, overall, the way we approach magic has a lot to do with our education and life experience. There are different ways of obtaining the same results, but that the methods that I outlined in my article are just as valid and important as what he outlined in his article. However, I need to explain why this methodology has an importance and a relevancy to me. It also it depends on one’s life experience and this is something that I didn’t mention in my previous article. You can either adopt these practices or not, depending on your needs and your life history.

How You Approach Magic is Shaped by Your Life History

One of the most important things that I can state about learning to master magic is that how one goes about it says as much about one’s starting conditions and state of mind as it does anything else. When I talk about learning magic, as I have in my most recent article (found here), I am, of course, talking from my own personal experience. What I said in that article is not to be confused with any kind of dictates - none of it is carved in stone as it were. They are suggestions, but they are based on perspectives that I believe and use. I didn’t write that explicitly in my article, but I did assume that there were multiple paths. I particularly emphasized the one path where someone has not been initiated into a magical tradition nor adopted a traditional religion. It is the one path to where I addressed the three specific religious and spiritual objectives. That wasn’t clearly stated, but I would like to introduce it now to clarify what I said and to whom.

There are common steps or stages that one undergoes when we examine what nearly everyone has done to become a magician, but there are differences between each person’s path that represent their unique approach. A person who has grown up and lives in a social condition where magic is considered diabolical at one extreme or a complete fantasy and a sign of mental incompetence at the other extreme will pursue magic differently than someone whose social condition is one of neutrality towards the same subjects. Also, when a person is initiated into a magical tradition that has a specific religious teaching, the pathway that he or she follows will be different. Still, many people today who are getting into the study and practice of magic have opted to determine their own path outside of any tradition, and these are the individuals for which my article was written.

All of these starting points will produce a somewhat different magical path and process, but the one that I have identified with in my article is the independent solitary practitioner who has to deal with the social consequences of practicing magic without a tradition or a body of students and teachers to help mitigate those struggles.

What I am saying is that someone who was alone and exposed to a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance regarding the practice of magic or occultism in general is going to undergo a different process and pathway to achieve a mastery of magic than someone who has none, or someone who has the backing of a tradition. If learning to successfully perform magic and to study occultism is a constant struggle against the opinions and expectations of one’s family and social world then the individual who is so engaged with that struggle may have to adopt a more drastic agenda of mental and spiritual practices in order to be successful. The path of achieving magical mastery then becomes also a struggle against one’s family and social circle, not to mention the educational, governmental and religious institutions that one has to pass through in order to be materially successful.

The path that I took to learn how to successfully practice magic was a struggle against my parents, my peers, and the social forces that were operating at that time. I also didn’t have any tradition available for me to join, so I was practically alone in my activities. My father represented a kind of extreme materialistic rejection of anything that was otherworldly, especially religion. He was a forceful man who believed that all religions were based on lies and deliberate deceit, so his opinion of occultism, magic and witchcraft was derisive and ridiculing. He made it a point to try and force me to drop all of my teenage attractions and interests in the paranormal, magic and the occult. He strongly believed that to adopt such beliefs was to show an extreme mental weakness and to begin a path that could only lead to failure and mental illness. I recall that at one point, he gathered together my books, magical tools and tarot cards and put them in the trash. I was lucky enough to retrieve them, but that action on his part certainly had a powerful impact on me.

While the early 1970's represented a time when young people were exploring the occult and alternative traditions of spirituality. It was also a time when fundamentalist Christianity first began to be a part of the popular culture, ironically becoming a counter movement to the counter culture. It produced Jesus freaks, young Republicans and other young fanatical Christians not associated with any mainstream church. For some reason these kids found me to be a threat to their beliefs and practices, and they singled me out for ostracization. 

Many kids who engaged in studying the occult, magic and eastern forms of spirituality did so in a very superficial manner, and by the 1980's, these fads had largely disappeared, became mainstream or went underground. Even so, while in school, my involvement in witchcraft, magic and the occult were either derided by some or condemned by others who were engaging with the new wave of fundamentalism. Some kids thought it was cool, but nearly all of them thought that I took it way too seriously.

A stint in the U. S. Navy made my occult and witchcraft predilections seem even more strange, dysfunctional and at odds with expected military behavior and beliefs. I think that being in the Navy, even for a short time, probably challenged my beliefs to the very extreme, since by having them, I was declared to be unfit for service and given a discharge. The psychiatrists who interviewed me told me that I needed some serious psychological counseling and perhaps even spending some time in an institution. They told me that I was a delusional psychotic. You can imagine what kind of impact these events had on me, and the fact that when I returned to my family I was considered a shameful failure by my father, a military man. He worried about me and told me that I needed to drop my occult proclivities or risk living my life in and out of institutions. I almost started to believe that I was psychotic, but my own stubborn adherence to sane occultism and my comforting magical practices said otherwise.

As you can see, my struggle to achieve a mastery of the art of magic had a lot of factors going against it. The probabilities were low that I would continue pursuing my beliefs. If I had been made of weaker stuff, I would probably have given it all up so that I could be more effective in my pursuit of material self-sufficiency. Looking back on my life history, I believe that part of how I teach and also work magic has been powerfully impacted by my life history. Sometimes I wonder if my approach to magic would have been different if I had not had so much resistance back when I was growing up and trying to learn magic and witchcraft. What if I had been born and raised in a family that would have either accepted occultism as valid or would have considered it as a non-issue? My father still ridicules my beliefs and practices even after all of these years and in order to have peace between us, we choose not to talk about it.

Therefore, as part of my magical education, and having to deal with a lot of cognitive dissonance, I had to create and adopt a magical persona in order for me to step outside of myself and not be distracted by the low self-esteem that I had as a kid who was abused and ridiculed by my father, estranged by my childhood friends and peers, and oppressed by the societal institutions that I had to pass through on my way to adulthood. Additionally, I had to adopt a mind-set that saw the world of magic, occultism and witchcraft as not governed by science and therefore, incapable of being judged by the social consensus. This was the age of Carl Sagan, who stated that the occult, magic and witchcraft were superstitions that our culture was better off without. Others, including my father, would repeat this message to me, over and over.

I learned to establish a psychic boundary between the “normal” and materialistically based mundane world and the world of magic. When I performed the ritual to consecrate my sacred space, it was to functionally create a boundary between the sacred and profane, so for a while I did occupy two different worlds when I practiced magic. Even so, I have always attempted to merge them together, although initially I was not very successful. I had to deal with so many other folks who negatively judged me as either a nut-case or as an unwitting dupe of Satan. By the way, establishing such a boundary in which to worship the God and Goddess of Witchcraft and also to practice magic is a fundamental part of practicing Modern Witchcraft. This distinction makes Witchcraft magic different than the practice of ceremonial magic (based on the Golden Dawn paradigm).

My use of creating sacred space and establishing a delineated domain for working magic and worshiping my deities was similar to a practice that patients suffering from trauma typically utilize, and that is making a “safe place” or an oasis to shelter one from trauma induced anxiety attacks. While I am not certain that what I had undergone was in any way close to becoming afflicted by PTSD, the means of dealing with the abuse heaped on me by my father, my peers and the associated cognitive dissonance that I experienced could be similar to that adopted by someone afflicted by trauma. When I performed the circle consecration rite I felt as though I had entered a pure and rarified sanctuary where all of my beliefs and practices were empowered and true. This artifice might not be necessary for someone who had experienced neither mental and physical parental abuse nor rejection by society and one’s peer group, yet it was also the standard operating procedure for those who were practicing some variant of Modern Witchcraft. It had the same effect on me as a safe place would to a person suffering from trauma and it was for me a place of love, peace and even joy, where the rules of magic, the domain of spirits and gods reigned supreme. 

Another thing that I had to do was to perceive myself as having a direct connection to my deities that allowed me to assume them in the drawing down rite and to perform magic in that assumed mental state. This is a particular technique that I developed very early in my magical practices. Having a magical persona helped give me the ability to identify as a godhead without blowing up my ego, since it was me as the witch and magician who was temporarily assuming the deity instead of the low self-esteem and inadequate person that I was outside of the magic circle.

It was hard initially to think of myself as anyone special or capable in the material world, and my steps to achieve material self-sufficiency were adversely impacted by a series of failures. Yet I persevered on all fronts and was able to achieve both my material as well as magical and occult goals. It was a struggle, but often I was the obstacle that had to be altered in order to make progress. In time a lot of my psychological defects were resolved and my sharp edges were smoothed down. I became educated, intelligent and capable, but it was a long and hard struggle. Nothing was easy for me, even though I was probably a bit smarter than some people I knew who thought themselves superior. Yet one of the factors that helped me was my boundless optimism in the face of all adversity, and also my powerful child-like imagination that I never outgrew. These were the seeds of my magical process that when nourished, grew and thrived.

As far as adopting traditions is concerned, becoming an initiated Alexandrian Witch was a watershed event for me. I had been practicing witchcraft and magic for around five years before I found a coven and requested to be initiated. Yet my practices were stunted, self absorbed and not yielding the kind of success that I had hoped for. Once I was initiated and given a lot of classes and started studying far better sources of magical lore, my magical practice profoundly changed for the better. It was like being handed the key to the mysteries and gaining an effusion of self-empowerment that was astonishing.

I know that adopting traditions are not particularly vogue these days, and getting a classical occult education is perceived as being a boring waste of time; but for me the advantages were enormous. I was given a traditional platform to work with, and from that platform, I was able to build all of the rites and ordeals that I use today. All I needed was to be initiated, empowered and exposed to a group of practitioners who helped me to clarify what I had been doing, and also, to receive a peer review of my work and to adjust it accordingly. Had I not received this initiation then my progress would have been a lot slower. Still, I believe that I would have gotten to the same place, although lacking in some critical areas of my current development.

So, what I underwent in my personal history has shaped how I practice magic and how I would teach someone to master it. When I have taught individuals how to work magic, I have shared with them the techniques that I myself have used, and they can either use them to the degree that I did to achieve my goals, or they can mitigate these practices in order to adjust them to their own personal history. I have never had someone reject certain rituals or practices based on their personal preferences or principles; but I have had discussions about tailoring these practices to the individual practitioner. In fact, what I have said and continue to say is that each magician must create their own magical system in order to make the magic that they practice a living part of their being.

Revisiting the Religious Objectives and Healing Cartesian Duality

Getting back to what Scott wrote and critiqued regarding my previous article, the two points that he had a problem with were part of the religious and spiritual objectives. I think that Scott and I approach magic in a similar manner, but it does differ when it comes down to the religious components of our magical systems. I was taught a form of magic based on Modern Witchcraft, and he adopted a Thelemic approach to the Golden Dawn system of ceremonial magic. They are quite distinct from each other, although I did borrow some elements from the basic GD rites, my approach is singularly different.

When a person is initiated into one of the traditions of modern witchcraft based on the Gardnerian model, that person assumes a magical and witch-based persona that is kept secret from the outside world. When the circle consecration rite is performed, the individuals within it also assume their witchcraft personas so that they are revealed to the deities, spirits and powers of the dread lords in their true sacred form. They might also be robed or garbed in some fashion, or they might be naked as a sign of complete trust, freedom and openness. In this environment they worship their deities and practice magic. They are separate from the mundane world, existing for the moment in the sacred safe place given to them by their gods. Yet this basic and fundamental state is the basis to the two objectives that I stated in my article.

The first objective is to elevate the self-image so a person is able to establish the credible belief and confidence that he or she can perform magical rituals that produce effective results. In this fashion a person assumes and becomes the persona of a magician with all of its associated practices and expectations. This means that the individual undergoes some kind of change or basic transformation that allows for paranormal phenomenon to occur, and it colors the way that he or she perceives themselves and the world around them.”

The second objective is to establish an artificial boundary between a world that is defined by magic and one that is defined as commonplace or mundane. In the material world, which is effectively defined by science, magic doesn’t have any factual basis, but in the world defined by magic, there are subjective powers and forces that can indeed cause the magician and his or her world to change, however modestly or profoundly, in accordance with their will. This boundary starts with the self as defined by magic and continues to define the practices, beliefs and the magical equipment as being set aside from the material world in order to be part of the magical world view.

Both of these objectives are achieved when a witch is initiated in a magic circle that is opened to the deities and empowered with the cone of power. If a person would seek to emulate this state and mode of practice without being initiated into a Pagan or Wiccan tradition (or any tradition) then building the rites to performing these operations stated above on a regular schedule would cause an initiation-like transformative process to occur, but perhaps not as dramatic or as quick. It would meet the basic objects for working magic as determined by the traditions of magical witchcraft.

As the practitioner would also engage in developing a specialized religious cult with themselves as the prelate and congregation, and within that cult, perform the godhead assumption of the principal deity then the third objective would be realized over time. Here it is quoted.

The third objective is to define the self as a spiritual being residing in a world defined by spirits, magical energies and exemplars of consciousness not defined by science or the material world view. This is, of course, an internal process that also causes an ongoing transformation of consciousness, where the alternate magical definition of the self becomes a principle part of the functioning of that world. This process also gives the magician a kind of authority and spiritual backing to perform magic, unleash metaphorical powers (that might be subtle but actual powers associated with consciousness) and to engage with disembodied entities of variously defined mythical, symbolical  and metaphysical existence. The self also assumes a mythical, symbolical and metaphysical existence as well, so it might engage with these entities and acquire and project paranormal forces and symbolic powers.”

I wrote these objectives with the non-initiate and independent magical practitioner in mind, and I based it on what I went through when I first developed my magical system and even later, when I was initiated as a Witch, so many years ago. It has remained the core part of my practices ever since, and it has been useful as well as empowering. I see no reason to either omit it or amend my own practices because it introduces duality into my magical work. I have found it to be integral to my magical process.

Now the question will be whether or not I have unwittingly established a troubling duality in what I am doing in my magical practice, and does this limit what I can do in the material world. My answer would have to be a negative. Since adopting this methodology more than four decades in the past, I have not only been able to transform and develop myself as a human being but I have also been able to continue to grow and maximize my potential in the material world. I may not be wealthy, but I am comfortably well-off, at least for now. A lot of this had to do with my magical workings, although it would be difficult for me to attribute everything I have achieved to magic. Some of it was incidental or even accidental, and to bend fate to explain everything as a product of my magic is probably, in my opinion, taking this approach too far. Not everyone would agree with this opinion, of course, but that is how I see my life and my reality.

However, there is one magical process that I discussed in my article that shows, if it is practiced as part of the one’s magical discipline, how all dualities of self and world, spirit and matter, life and death, can be merged and unified into one single reality, process and beingness. That is the practice of ordeal magic that I refer to as theurgy. The process of theurgy probably starts early in one’s magical career as one attempts to bridge the magical and mundane worlds, and it ends with the merging of self and not-self into the unity of all being. What I say about theurgy in my article is very much the universal medicine to all that plagues and afflicts humanity, and that is all of the disappointments, thwarted ambitions and lost opportunities that happen to nearly everyone. There are also nullifying conflicts, unresolvable issues and the occurrences of accidents and catastrophes. No magician is immune to these occurrences, and in fact, all living things succumb to death and defeat eventually. Even so, theurgy can address them and over time, resolve them, and that includes the ultimate ordeal, death itself.

So while it is likely that the beginning magician, following my methods for performing magic, might encounter some Cartesian duality, it will not last long. Being continually exposed to sacred magic and the domain of spirits and gods has a natural healing process built into it. They will also experience the processes of unity and the healing of duality that is accelerated through theurgy. When I teach someone magic and share with them the lore that I use, I also encourage them to undergo magical ordeals, even from the very first stages of their magical training. This process is built into the magical order that I helped to develop - the Order of the Gnostic Star. That is the way that the methods of theurgy are adopted by magicians practicing my system of magic. It is also how, over time, that process will cause the various dualities of practice and perception to be healed and brought into union. It isn’t guaranteed, but a continual practice using this methodology will start making that happen very quickly.

Finally, the way that Scott and I work magic is both similar yet also very different. They are based not only on two distinct traditions, but also two very different personalities and two different life histories. Neither method is the definitive one, and whichever one a student might adopt has to do with their life experience, how they perceive ritual magic, whether they belong to a tradition or to none at all, and their basic personality. You couldn’t find two different personalities when examining Scott and myself, so our corresponding magical systems would be expected to be different as well. We have many points in common, but there are differences, too. It is up to students to choose a path that matches their basic beliefs and personalities. Some will like Scott’s scientific and practical approach to magic, and some will want something that incorporates poetry, drama and theater. Scott seems like a scientist to me, and I am more like an artist.

My message to the student, choose ye well, then do your will.  

Frater Barrabbas


  1. A couple of points. I did not claim it could lead to an "unresolvable Cartesian dualism." That's a much more extreme statement, implying that "if you do this ever, you won't be able to resolve it." That is not what I meant at all. If you and/or your students find it useful and want to do it, great. If it works it works. My point was just that I don't think it's necessary, so students don't HAVE to do it if it just doesn't make sense or just doesn't work for them.

    My example is also myself - I've never found it useful at all - but I also understand that my experience is not universal. I'm a semi-generational magician. Neither of my parents were practitioners, but one of my grandparents and two of my great-grandparents were involved in the Church of Light/Brotherhood of Light before I was born. I say "semi" because they all died before I was born and as such I never met them or learned anything from them. But I also never grew up with a bunch of negativity around the idea of magick, so I don't have a bunch of bad conditioning related to it. As such, most of the tricks designed to circumvent it aren't helpful for me. I don't have it, so I don't need it.

    And by the way, this article addressing dualism as a form of trauma and how you healed from it is probably going to be super-helpful for a lot of students with backgrounds similar to yours. Thanks for posting it, and I'm glad I could be part of the conversation.

  2. Hi Scott - yes, you are correct about not saying that my methods would lead to an unresolvable Cartesian dualsim. However, logically, one could surmise that such a dualism might be problematic if it were allowed to continue, and your article revealed that fact to me. So I was answering what I saw was a possible problem with how I wrote my previous article. I needed to emphasize that how we learn magic has a lot to do with our history and our way of thinking and perceiving reality. It was important for me to explain that what I write is not to be taken as some kind of inflexible law, but merely representative of one person's way of learning and mastering magic. There is a lot of subjectivity and even artistry in how I perceive and practice magic. I am lucky that some people have taken my rituals or parts of them and made them work, and this has at least given me some objectivity in what is for me, a very subjective affair.In other words, it has comforted me in knowing that I am not engaging in pure fantasy.

    I don't have the mental discipline or education to approach magic as you do, and I admire what you do and how you state it. I have learned more from you than you could know. Ultimately, I have to use the skills and abilities that I have, and they are those that are less of a scientist and more of an artist.

    Unfortunately for me, I was not exaggerating about the negativity that I have had to deal with in my formative years. It has marked me, and to some extent, I carry that baggage with me. I have done wonders mitigating and transforming my flaws and mental issues, but it is not a full recovery, and considering my age, it probably never will be.

    Once again, thank you for responding to my blog article. You are a good friend and a well respected peer.