What is Magic?

9312433_xlI’m currently taking Taylor Ellwood’s online class, The Process of Magic. Largely, I’m interested in this class because I’ve never done any formal training in the Western Mystery Traditions when it comes to magic, and I’d like to piece together what I’ve learned through osmosis over the years.

Probably the more pressing reason for me to take this class is that over the years, my definition of magic has changed a few times.

When I wrote my Hexes and Curses article I got a lot of push-back from people who said I was wrong, that I didn’t understand how Hexes worked, or who even said, “Well, you obviously don’t believe in magic at all.”

The truth is, I do believe in magic–but, my relationship to magic has gotten both more complicated–and yet in some ways more simple–the more I’ve learned over the years. Like many things, I’ve gone back and forth to different sides of the pendulum, and so I’ve been asking myself this question a lot. What is magic? What do I believe about magic?

What is my definition of magic? Why do I use that definition? How does magic fit into my life? What are my core values and beliefs and how do those connect to my beliefs about magic?

These are some of the questions I’m pondering that are part of the homework for the class. And for me, coming up with that definition of magic is really the hard part, because that means I have to articulate if I believe in magic at all, and if so, what that means to me.

First I have to take a brief spin through my past to explain why the word magic is complicated for me. Because, what I realize is that if I don’t use the word “magic” in the sentence, I absolutely believe that I can shape the world around me with my will. Which is, in essence, a definition of magic. So why does the word magic bug me?

Magical Child
Like a lot of kids, I grew up with an imaginary friend and pretend magical powers. The more the other kids bullied and ostracized me, the more my fantasy world where I had magical powers seemed to draw me in. As I matured and realized that no, I didn’t really have the power to zap people with magical spells, I began connecting more with the idea of psychic powers. These felt different from the idea of magic spells, and yet–like magic–psychic abilities are hidden, unseen, mostly not proven by mainstream science. And only the “special” people seem to have them.

In fact, the foundation of my self-identity as a tween and teen was the idea that I was somehow special, somehow different, somehow better than all of my peers. It’s a common mental defense tactic in people who are bullied and abused. Ego removes the dangling threat of potential suicide with the compelling fantasy that we are somehow more special than anyone else.

For me, psychic abilities, and later my experiences of divine communion, were part of that compelling inner world of mine, part of my idea that I was somehow magical, special, better than the peers who abused me.

Psychic Abilities
Now–I wasn’t completely deluded; I knew I couldn’t shoot bolts of lightning out of my fingers. It’s also worth pointing out that I had a fair number of intense experiences of psychic phenomena, enough to prove it to me as a reality. I’ve had plenty of dreams of events that came to pass. I’ve had the occasional weirdly-accurate telepathic communication between myself and another person, either hearing words they were thinking, or them hearing words I was thinking. In some cases, I pulled an image right out of someone’s mind and described it to them.

In a few other rare cases, I had psychic “pings” about something they had done, usually related to sex or pregnancy. In a few cases, I knew when a close friend had had unprotected sex. In a few other cases, I knew eerily accurate details about a friend’s wife’s pregnancy. I knew she was pregnant months before they announced, I knew the due date, I even knew how old their first child would be when they had their second child, and that it would be a daughter. With another friend, I knew that he was going to accidentally get someone pregnant and what month. I told him, but it happened anyways.

So I’ve had enough proof of psychic abilities–and in specific, my own psychic abilities–for my own skepticism. I don’t really talk a lot about psychic woo-woo stuff because of two reasons. One is, psychic experiences like that are in no way predictable for me so people who want me to “prove” it or to do a reading on them, it doesn’t really work like that. Not for me, anyways.

The other reason is that a lot of the Pagans who talk a lot about their own psychic woo-woo experiences seem to be trying to impress people. Many seem to be trying to get attention but it comes across as being a show off and a jerk.

As I got older, I started to sort of realize and negotiate some conflicting ideas. Yes, I had had psychic experiences…no, they weren’t really on-demand. Despite many years of work, it wasn’t really something I controlled, it was just a piece of extra information that came up whether or not it was relevant or useful.

So my psychic abilities didn’t really make me “powerful” in any real sense. And they were real–I had enough proof of that–so they didn’t really feel magical, even though they were still unseen, hidden, unproveable to others.

Divine Communion 
The path of the mystic is the path of one who communes–connects–directly with the divine. I had had visions of a particular goddess/angel/spirit since I was young, and so in a way, though this did make me feel special and contributed to my sense of being different/unique/magical, as I got older, this too ceased to feel like magic. It was (and still is) transformative, intense, deep…and goes beyond words, but it didn’t feel the same as what people usually call “magic.”

In fact, in some of the training that I did in spiritual leadership, that particular mystery school took great pains to point out the differences between mysticism and magic, or more specifically, they defined themselves as a mystery tradition, not a magical tradition.

However, when I review what that particular mystery school taught, I realize that it was somewhat narrowly-defined and in some ways, erroneous. In fact, when I reread what they were teaching, it was basically shaping the definitions to suit their purposes, so I begin to realize how I started having such a problem with the word magic.

They wrote:

“Magical traditions:

  • Based on the belief that ritual, prayer, and/or spell can create change in the world outside the self – influence weather, other people’s behavior/thoughts, and group dynamics, such as politics
  • Invest forms and tools with specific powers and meanings (e.g., invocation summons the power of an element to do the invoker’s bidding; green candles bring healing) and, therefore, hold fairly rigidly to forms and feel strongly about the specific and exclusive uses of tools
  • See patterns in the world (e.g., the presence of an animal, a change in the weather) as a message about self
  • Often rely on a single intermediary who interprets doctrine and through which we learn about divine intention (e.g., a priest, priestess, minister)

Mystical traditions:

  • Based on the belief that ritual, prayer, and/or spell can change only the self – one’s own consciousness, behavior, perception

  • Use forms and tools to convey intention and meanings (e.g., invocation honors the power of an element and recognizes its influence; green candles represent green, growing, living things) and, therefore, use forms flexibly and creatively select tools to fit need/intention

  • See patterns in the world (e.g., the presence of an animal, a change in the weather) as a message about life and see self as a part of the patterns, not the object of the messages

  • Open to individuals’ varied interpretations of doctrine and diverse ways of connecting to divine intention.”

Now–I don’t disagree with all of this, but, it does put things in some pretty rigid terms, and in some cases uses the wrong terms completely. The word mysticism means direct communion with the divine, and that isn’t really addressed at all in the definition of Mystical Traditions in the above. For that matter, many mystical traditions have a central/hierarchical priest or priestess.

Definition of Magic–Dion Fortune
At the Diana’s Grove Mystery School, the definition of magic we were taught was based on Dion Fortune’s. “Magic is changing consciousness at will.” We were taught a variation–“Magic is changing my OWN consciousness at will.”

Now–I want to offer just a brief tangent thought. Dion Fortune’s definition could simultaneously be referring to two different things–the functions of magic, and the outcome. Getting into a trance state, or an altered state of consciousness, is one of the ways to do magical work. However, altering your consciousness is also a potential goal or outcome of magic. Which does Dion Fortune’s definition refer to? I like to think it probably refers in a sneaky way to both.

Back to my challenges with the word magic…Diana’s Grove was, at its core, agnostic, perhaps even a bit atheistic. We didn’t really talk about psychic abilities or woo-woo magic powers. In fact, anything that smacked of delusion and grandeur was kind of subtly discouraged if not outright referred to as being immature.

In essence, there was a pressure to believe that the idea of external magic was hubris. That the only real magic–the only magic that people could actually accomplish–was the magic of personal transformation.

Now–I get why there was the subtle and not-so-subtle disapproval of heavy woo-woo magic. It’s true that in the Pagan community, many of the people who go on and on about their psychic and magical powers are actually really immature and attention seeking. Or they just have really poor self esteem and are looking for positive attention. Or a combo of that and other things. So I get the idea of leaning in the other direction.

But I’m reminded over and over that humans just don’t do paradox well. We pendulum swing, we can’t hold space for gray area.

So now that I have reviewed where a lot of my assumptions about the word “magic” came from when I was doing my leadership training, where to go from there? First I have to go back to a few more of my experiences that disenchanted me with the word.

Ritual and Magic
During my three years at Diana’s Grove I began taking ritual roles with increasing responsibility. The Diana’s Grove rituals had at first felt magical and transformative to me. As I began learning the tricks to facilitate, the “magic” left those rituals. It just felt like technique.

I learned how to trance a group out. I learned about the power of eye contact. I learned about a lot of different techniques that facilitators use to entrance and enchant a group.

One night, I sort of cracked. I was at a weekend retreat at Diana’s Grove. It had been a stressful weekend, and I won’t go into the details of why, but by the time we were stepping into the evening ritual, my heart was thudding in my chest. Later that night someone would clue me in that what I was having was a panic attack. In the moment, I just realized I couldn’t get my heart to stop palpitating. I kept breathing evenly. I had three ritual roles that night. I stepped in for the first one, and the second. I did my part, and my heart kept thudding. When we all sat down/laid down for the trance journey, I had the spins so bad I had to keep my eyes open.

I stood up to do my third ritual role–each participant was to take a bead from a bowl and hand the bead to Persephone. The woman aspecting Persephone was supposed to take these beads to the Underworld. The beads would represent one wound from the past that each participant was ready to release for healing beneath the ground.

I was one of the people holding the bowls of beads. My job was to stand there and look into each person’s eyes and ask them trance questions while they worked to find the bead that would represent their wounds. So I’m standing there for long minutes. My heart is still palpitating but with even breathing I’m keeping things under control. And I’m asking the questions I’m supposed to ask. “What would would you leave behind? What would you release? What would you give over to Persephone, what would you release for healing in the Underworld? What no longer serves?”

People paw through the bowl of beads, hunting out that “perfect” bead. So I’m giving them deep meaningful eye contact, and asking these questions. But what I’m thinking in my head is, “This is just a fucking bead. It’s just a bowl of fucking beads. It doesn’t matter. None of this is fucking magical. It’s just a bead. Just pick one so I can set this thing down and we can move on. It doesn’t matter. None of this matters.”

I was obviously in a less-than-magical headspace. I had finally hit that point where I wondered, is all ritual just technique? Is there any magic to it at all?

At the end of that ritual when we were doing the final singing/dancing/energy raising, I burst into tears, probably from stress. After that is when a friend clued me in that those were all the symptoms of a panic attack. “But I wasn’t panicking,” I said. She laughed, and said, “Well, that’s because it’s you.”

The next year was my final year at Diana’s Grove doing my culminating year of leadership training, and I consciously worked to bring the magic back into ritual. And I found it again, to a certain extent. I realized that a lot of what I do in ritual is facilitation tricks…but, there’s also the authenticity piece beneath it.

It’s a form of alchemy. Technique + genuine, authentic connection = magic. And explaining that in more depth requires I talk a lot more about ritual facilitation, and that would take us way off topic.

Suffice to say, over the course of many years, I’ve found that there is still magic in ritual, even knowing what I do about facilitation technique, but it takes work to get there.

But then we come back to, what the heck does magic mean?

I think the word magic has different meanings in different contexts. I think across the board, it tends to mean “the hidden.” Or, things that happen in a way I can’t easily see/unravel. A related definition might be how I see most people use it in terms of spellwork. “Magic is doing a spell and getting what I want without having to do any work.” I think the idea is that you set your intention, light the right colored candle, and the universe brings you what you want if you’re cool enough.

Obviously there are some problems with that concept.

I tend to use the definition that magic is science we don’t understand yet. It’s science, it’s just science we can’t readily perceive or see. Or, that some of us can more easily see because we’ve trained ourselves to, but the more we know about it–the more it becomes science and technique–the less magical it might seem. We’ll just chalk that up to paradox.

I’ll continue this in Part 2 tomorrow.


7 thoughts on “What is Magic?

  1. A very good article. I look forward to following this to conclusion. I tend to hold the view that magic is very much like many things in Paganism; “yes, and” instead of “either, or.” Sounds like that’s where you’re going . . . guess I’ll find out!

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