The Zen Pagan: The Quiet Side of Magic

I started composing this episode of “The Zen Pagan” at Wisteria on the day we affectionately call “All ‘T’aint’s Day” — ‘t’aint the SubGenius “X Day” festival that ended yesterday, and ‘t’ain’t Starwood yet. This lull between festivals (see our prior episode about festivals as religious pilgrimage) is a delightfully quiet interlude. There are still things to do; I can walk down the road and visit other camps, or take a e swimming hole, or I can pull out my guitar or one of the instruments that I have no idea how to play and mess around musically for a while. But sometimes I find myself just sitting, looking at nothing in particular, listening to the trees moving in the wind and the birds chirping, alone with my thoughts.

Many people apparently hate that idea. Just before I left Baltimore I happened to read about a new study by psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard, which found that people were so adverse to being alone in a room for a little while (six to fifteen minutes) with nothing to do but think or daydream that some would rather give themselves painful electrical shocks than do nothing for that time.

Lead researcher Timothy Wilson said “Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising – I certainly do – but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time.”

Contemplation is not something that we value much. It’s common to blame new technology, social media and text messaging and the like, for exacerbating this, but this research found similar behavior in different age groups and suggests the these always-on connections fill a pre-existing desire rather than creating a new one. Of course a study on living subjects can’t tell us how things were a century ago, but the trend seems to go back a good long way. Thoreau’s contemporaries thought him quite odd when he went off to live in the woods alone.


The Kamakura Daibutsu (“Big Buddha”)

Buddhism, of course, takes a rather opposite tack; “right meditation” is part of the “Eightfold Path,” and so as a Zen guy (in my own fashion) I’m down with that. (Though Buddhism also recognizes that meditation is a hard thing — I think it was the Zen teacher Brad Warner who noted that it’s so hard that we build huge statues to the Buddha, whose main claim to fame was being good at sitting still.) But I’ve also been thinking about the problem in a more Pagan/magical context lately, something I’ve come to call “the quiet side of magic”.

Magic, Uncle Aleister tells us, is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” Change! Will! Every intentional act, Crowley says, is a magical act! Very active, yang terms here. From paleolithic tribal sympathetic magic to the medieval magician conjuring spirits to do his will to the witch’s healing charm, magic is about getting shit done. Right?

Or is there a yin side as well? A receptive side, more about listening and contemplating? Dion Fortune refines Crowley’s definition and says that magic is about changing consciousness at will, a more internal transformation. We can go back to the ancient Greeks and the Oracle at Delphi’s advice, “Know Thyself”. And further back to paleolithic tribal societies, the shaman’s eye turns to an inner realm during a vision quest; while one may meet various spirits and powers in that other realm, they are aspects of ourselves, and it is a contemplative and introspective process.

I was fortunate here at Starwood to attend a workshop by Jeff “Magnus” McBride, famous both as a stage magician and for his understanding of ritual, where he spoke about an archetypal model of the development of a magician. He talked about how a performer evolves from the yang, externally-active Trickster and Sorcerer to the more yin, internally-active Oracle and Sage. The huge active spectacle of a David Copperfield is the Sorcerer in action, while David Blaine frozen, still and unmoving in the middle of Times Square, is an example of the Oracle, turning inward.

The wizard Ged in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels might be a fine fictional example of the path of the contemplative magician. Where Harry Potter and Gandalf fight to overcome lords of evil who seek to rule the world, A Wizard of Earthsea sees Ged moving from a Trickster who defends his village by summoning fog to confuse invading soldiers, to a Sorcerer (in McBride’s labeling) who summons powerful spirits on a dare…and then turns to a journey inward as Oracle as he struggles against a personal shadow. He emerges from his trials not merely a fighter with supernatural powers but truly a wizard, a wise one, who plays the Sage, the adviser and councilor, to the protagonists of the next two novels.

If you have not yet read the Earthsea novels, do so, you’re in for a treat. You should ignore the TV miniseries that was made of them a few years ago, which was disavowed by Le Guin. But perhaps that part of the issue here — Gandalf’s Balrog-wresting or Potter fighting Death Eaters makes for more spectacle on the screen than Ged’s quest for self-knowledge. It’s harder (not impossible, but harder) to make a blockbuster movie or popular novel about personal discovery. So we have to jazz those stories up. We turn Ged into an action hero in the TV adaptation, and we put miracle stories into the biography of the saints and sages.

It’s just harder to talk about internal transformation… as Lao Tzu told us thousands of years ago, the Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao. And so we use metaphors of action in the physical world to point the way. But when we forget the metaphor, when we forget that the real story isn’t Gandalf’s spells but Frodo and Sam’s determination and loyalty, that what ultimately made Harry Potter a hero wasn’t his skill with a wand but the willingness to sacrifice himself to protect his friends, then we lose the substance.

It seems to me that to be a great magician is to be able to sit quietly when it is time to sit, and to be able to act boldly when it is time to act; to be able to listen and to speak, to see and to do — and to know when the time is right for each.


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About Tom Swiss

Tom Swiss describes his spiritual path as "Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian", which usually baffles questioners enough to leave him alone. Over the past decade he has built a reputation as a lecturer on subjects spanning the gamut from acupressure to Zen and from self-defense to sexuality. He is an NCCAOM Diplomate in Asian Bodywork Therapy, a godan (fifth-degree black belt) in karate, a poet, a singer/songwriter, an amateur philosopher, and a professional computer geek. Tom has previously served as President of the Free Spirit Alliance. He is the author of "Why Buddha Touched the Earth" (Megalithica Books, 2013). Find out more about his wacky adventures at www.infamous.net.


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