Friday, April 11, 2008


A few years back I was a presenter at a conference on the Western Magical Tradition held at the Findhorn Foundation Community in northern Scotland. Both practitioners and scholars of various forms of magic came from all over Europe and North America to attend. Like so many conferences in which there are more speakers than anyone knows quite what to do with, the afternoons were taken up with panels in which five or six presenters are jammed together and given a few nanoseconds each to present the breadth and depth of their knowledge before being exposed to questions. As you can tell, though I've both been on and seen some very good panels, I'm not fond of the form.

At this conference, one afternoon panel provided a bit of unexpected drama, though I imagine not in a way the organizers appreciated. It was a panel for which the theme was "What is magic?" As I recall, there were four or five panelists, and the first speaker was a man who had written a beginner's book on magic and spirituality. His definition was that magic was very simple, a kind of "playing with energies" that everyone could do. This went uncontested until the last panelist had his turn to speak. He was a well-known and respected author of many books on magic, as well as a competent practitioner. He had been quite visibly restraining himself from saying something until his turn came, but then he practically leaped out of his chair in agitation and said, "Magic most certainly is NOT playing with energies!" Then, shaking his finger at the first panelist, he proceeded to verbally demolish him, stating that magic was anything but simple, and that it was a deep and profound discipline that was not for everyone. He let it be known in no uncertain terms that his fellow panelist had no business speaking in this conference if he was going to spout drivel. This in turn led to a shouting match between the two which eventually led to the organizers' coming on stage and shutting the whole thing down.

I hadn't realized till then how much fun a conference of magicians could be!

I have to admit, though, that even after that, the definition of magic remains elusive to me. The word magic is used loosely in a number of different ways and contexts, from the excitement and wonder of a romantic evening to stage illusions to the profound spiritual disciplines of alchemy and hermeticism. If I say I'm a magician, then just exactly how am I describing myself? What really is magic? Perhaps behind the disciplines and the rituals, the techniques and procedures, it does come down to a play of energies innate in all of us, though now I might think twice before saying so on a panel!

I once had a conversation with a non-physical being to whom I asked this question of the nature of magic. He seemed puzzled and asked me what I was talking about. So I explained to him what I had in mind and he said, "Oh, you mean life!" Another being was more helpful, but only just. "When you pick up a glass of water," he said, "for you it's simply an act of will. You wish the water and your body responds by picking up the glass. It seems instantaneous to you. But at the level of your cells, a great deal more goes on in the form of energy exchanges and molecular alterations, all of which you don't experience. What you call magic, with your rituals and correspondences, is to us equivalent to these molecular activities at a cellular level whereas what we call magic--the magic of the soul, if you wish--is like the direct experience of will and its consequences. We will and it is done."

Nice trick when you can do it.

At the heart of what this being was saying was relationship between two states for which will was a bridge. In his case, the bridge was direct, but in our case, the relationship or connections needed to be built up between ourselves and the object of the magic, hence the use of ritual or correspondences. The image was like the difference between teleporting directly between San Francisco and New York on the one hand and traveling from one city to the other through a series of connecting railway links. His point was that as we were able to form deeper and better connections or relationships, our magic would change. It was a matter of the wholeness in us matching the wholeness of the cosmos.

Thinking of magic as relationship and connection has been helpful to me, more helpful than thinking of it as ritual or alchemical processes on the one hand or playing with energies on the other. More precisely, it gives me a starting point in thinking about magic and the making of magic. I can think of it, for instance, not simply as the use of the will to produce effects in the world but as the forming of relationships or connections co-creatively with the world that have consequences, hopefully desired ones.

Why is this important? Because I believe as human beings we need to move to a partnership model of our relationship with the rest of creation, not simply for moral or spiritual reasons but because it works better. It is closer to the truth of things. If I think of magic as the projection and imposition of my will upon the world, whether through the astral light or the etheric plane or some other intermediate dimension, I am acting as a separate agent. I am not really engaging the world. I am acting upon it but not with it. I am making links through corresondences and rituals, but I am not making wholeness. I am not participating. In the end, whatever the success of my magical operation, the world and I remain separate. We remain strangers to each other.

Whatever magic is or can become, I believe it calls us to be not just in the world, or even less to have power over the world, but to be with the world in spirit and in wholeness. It is a "with-it" magic.