There’s Practice and There’s Practice

Chaos Magic is basically practical. We make changes in the world. We are more like cunning folk, witch doctors or sorcerers than god-botherers or study bunnies. Not that we can’t bother gods or hit the books when we feel a need, but in a masterly display of paralysis by analysis, we’ll read forty books and never pick up a wand.

We tend not to want to jump until we have some fantasy requirement called ‘sufficient information’ that will relieve our discomfort with the unfamiliarity embodied in the future. Information, we think, reduces risk. But as Justin Mamis points out in The Nature of Risk, by the time you have collected ‘sufficient information’ the time has passed when you could profit by it. And from lost opportunity comes opportunity cost. You can waste your life waiting for ‘sufficient information.’

It is in fact a less risky and potentially more profitable strategy to go ahead with whatever information you’ve got and keep your eye on how things unfold, ready to respond to whatever the world coughs up next.

Research and knowing your stuff are indeed necessary, but what they are necessary for is results, and results come from doing the magic. We’re all about doing the magic. Many times a simple ritual with minimal research behind it works just fine while a meticulously researched performance with bells, whistles, consecrated doodads and all the right correspondences falls as flat as a pentacle. Which it shouldn’t, by the way.

There is general agreement that success in magic involves preparing not only the ritual but the magician. This is done in several ways:

  • know some stuff. Know the Western Magical Tradition as best you can. We hit the books to understand the context and the rationale for our techniques. Read up on the belief systems underlying your magical acts. Most of us could do with reading more history.
  • there’s the techniques themselves. We get familiar with them, their structures, their essential requirements and so on. Know the moves, learn the words.
  • the exercise of technique usually involves skills. To train them is to train the attributes of a magician. And this is where it seems to go wrong for a lot of people.

Firstly, anyone at the beginning of their magical career may have no idea where to start, especially if they’re chao-curious and have heard the rumour that nothing is true and everything is permitted. It’s all very well shopping at the postmodern supermarket of ideas, but if you can’t read what’s on the tin you have no idea what you’re taking off the shelf. Dinner may be amusing or positively poisonous.

Therefore a crucial element in magical training is to settle on a program. Being clueless (see above) and therefore doubtful of what they’re doing, most people dabble in program after program, cherry-picking bits of, say, Crowley’s Book 4 or perhaps Bardon’s Initiation into Hermetics, or Carroll’s Liber Null or any one of a dozen programs they stumbled across on the Internet, such as Bluefluke’s Psychonaut’s Field Manual. It’s like diet-hopping. You don’t get anywhere.

To deal with this problem, I recommend the advice of a brother of mine, who said “It’s all bullshit; just pick something.” As with your magical belief system, so with your training program. Do only enough research to just pick one and see it through.

Second problem: training differs from exercise in that training is progressive. Whatever you’re training is supposed to get better over time. Exercise is merely treading water, turning the engine over, maintenance work. Weight trainers need to progressively lift more weight or they don’t get stronger. Your daily (and recommended) half an hour of walking in lively fashion each day is simply keeping your metabolism in reasonable shape. It’s exercise.

Many magicians seem to be trapped in a regime of magical exercises rather than in progressive training. They have their daily routine of choose-from-the-following meditation/Lesser Banishing Ritual/Middle Pillar Ritual/devotions/whatever, something they tend to call ‘praxis.’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against magical exercises. Far from it. Doing regular magical exercises sharpens the tools, but their lack of significant progression means that they are exercises for magic rather than magic itself as we’re thinking of it here. Y’know, Intention, spells, results.

Tools, sharpened for use.

Many people find that developing a regular routine helps them to be consistent in magical practice, and consistency matters. However, it’s all too easy to kid yourself that you’re doing lots of magical work when all you’re doing is sharpening the tools. And this is a good way of avoiding getting down to magic for whatever reason, usually anxiety that something could go wrong. Avoidance and putting it off are bad ways to deal with anxiety. Aside from clinical anxiety, the best way to deal with that wobbly feeling is to do something right now. In magical training, as opposed to exercise, you push beyond your comfort zone. By definition this is uncomfortable. Go ahead anyway; the feeling will pass.

Speaking of ‘praxis,’ ‘ethical praxis’ is people regulating their lives with crank diets with matching politics and social posturing with clicktivism and sanctimonious conversations. We’re not talking about them; plain vanilla yoghurt-bothering Grayface Beigeioisie. Oh, and I’ll have that word ‘ethical’ back off them, thanks.

Meanwhile, the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll magician prepares for magic by, perhaps, a ceremonial bath, a period of fasting or abstention, a vigil, novena or other such observances. Magicians have been doing these since at least the days of the Magical Papyri. Abramelin requires an 18 month prep before the big conjuration series. Such practices find their natural role here as proximate ritual prep rather than in the fake secular Puritan ‘praxis’ of the Diet Pepsi Anti-Sex League.

These preparatory practices haven’t been much in fashion in Western magic for a while and sensible well-informed discussion is hard to find, so by all means research the methodologies that do actually use them and experiment to find out what each practice does for you.

So where were we? Ah yes. Magical training as pushing beyond the comfort zone. As beginners, the exercises function as training until we get the hang of them. You practice visualization until you can picture things relatively easily or until you reach your preferred degree of vividness and stability. From then on you’re practicing in live situations and will probably never need to revisit the exercises of visualization as such.

Likewise, you’ll get better at a regular banishing ritual simply through repetition, and once you’ve got it working there’s little to be gained by making an increasing meal of it. You don’t need a three-storey porch on a log cabin.

And after the initial learning curve, concentration exercises too become simply maintenance. More is not necessarily any better. You’re unlikely to get more usefully better at concentration on three hours’ daily practice than on half an hour’s.

Beware the belief that progress means making a simple thing more complicated. Martial arts and magic seem to suffer most from this tendency to add ‘the next level’ of sophistication to what you’ve mastered. This belief is mostly fostered by ‘masters’ who want to keep their students turning up and paying for ‘the advanced stuff’ forever. “You could spend lifetimes on this system” they say, eyeing you meaningfully. So if you find that your chosen system is looking a bit fractal or becoming more and more elaborate, you may have got caught in the ‘next level’ belief. Keep it simple. The basics always count.

In Metamorphosis, however, the name of the game is pushing the envelope, from minor alterations of habit to completely overhauling our overarching paradigm, not merely changing ourselves but expanding our behavioural options massively.

Illumination in particular spontaneously generates unexpected (and sometimes unwelcome) changes and the game is raised the more you play, as described, for example, here.

In spirit model magic your close relationship with a given spirit may well deepen and become richer over time, as relationships are wont to do. Your ritual approaches may well seem more intense on occasion, then, as you journey together.

Psychic abilities – clairvoyance, mediumship, prophecy and such – respond well to training. Developing intuition is a lifelong project, and growing ability in these areas marks you as an adept, a wise one, a seer.

In whatever you do though, the key to training is in continual challenge; pushing yourself to attempt more. Succeed or fail (there will be times) but push. Advance a bit, then pause and consolidate, but advance. The results you get will be your feedback. Oh, and keep records. Really.

So, summary.

  • Research. Just do a rapid shoparound of some training programs and pick one. Having chosen, don’t program-hop. Stick with the one you chose. Get some consistency before tweaking the program.
  • Research. You’ll be doing this for the rest of your magical career, so you don’t have to do it all before starting to do magic. Get going. Learn as you go.
  • Exercises. Look for simple exercises of concentration, visualisation, open mindfulness, breath and energy work.
  • Exercises. Magic. Learn centering, banishing or similar; start with something simple, like sigils for results. Practice regularly.
  • Metamorphosis. Push through your comfort zone. Challenge yourself.
  • Psychic abilities respond well to training.

That’s what I call practice.

In pursuit of the Great Work of Magic.

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