The magic is in you — this isn’t some bumper-sticker with a few empty words to help you feel more powerful. Magic is not psychology and it’s not here to make you feel better. Deep magic is not — not once and not ever — the easy path. Magic is about breaking the chains of the world-as-we-were-taught, so that we can explore the world-as-it-is.
Magic (mostly) isn’t about waving a wand to make the world over; that’s an empty promise. Magic isn’t a secret word that effortlessly bends the world under our will. It’s much more, and much less, than that.
Here in the West, we measure our accomplishments by fulfilling our desires. We imagine that magic will shield us from a dangerous world and bring us everything we want. We imagine magic as a servant, a genie here to grant us wishes.
The magic is in you. Yet it’s not a promise of ultimate power, special status, or fantasy fulfillment. The magic is in us all, somewhere. This source of vitality, of self, of rooted reality, has been lost. Your first quest is to find it.
Awaken the Spirit
There are four tasks on this quest. The first is to awaken your spirit. Without that, you’re just an empty sail.
In everyday language, when we talk about the human spirit, we treat it like something special and unique and maybe a little impossible. In a larger sense, it functionally has more in common with the skin than the soul. The human spirit senses things for us. It also provides some protection and can be used for communication. But in Western culture, most people don’t use it much at all.
The way Westerners have been raised, we’ve been taught to ignore the spirit. Without care, it gets ratty and dirty. Without regular exercise (spiritual and physical), it weakens and deflates to the point of uselessness.
In the West, we’re not taught proper care for our own spirits. We revere them, and yet we take them for granted. We say that this person’s spirit is weak, or that one’s is strong. But few people seem to understand that we can exercise our spirits and make them stronger, and cleaner, and more flexible.
Developing your spirit isn’t easy. It’s not impossible, either. If there’s one thing that magical traditions bring to the table, it’s ritual practices that could be described as spirit-calisthenics.
ProTip: In order to awaken your spirit, the first step is to set up a line of communication between your spirit and your everyday mind. There are many paths to doing this, but I’ll mention three. The easiest and most ubiquitous is studying tarot (or any other form of sortilege). Card-reading provides a pathway for your spirit to communicate what it knows to your everyday mind.
Another way to begin communication between your spirit and mind is a dream journal. Recording your nightly dreams isn’t so much about the content as it is about the practice of bringing your dream-awareness closer to your everyday mind.
The third way to open a path of communication between the mind and the spirit is to reverse the practice of the dream journal by bringing your everyday awareness closer to your dreams, instead. The way to do this is the “shamanic journey” as outlined in Michael Harner’s Way of the Shaman (1980). If you can ignore all the theorizing in the book about what “shamanism” is, the basic technique teaches you to connect your spirit-mind and everyday mind.
Find Your Sacred Guide
The second task is to seek out your sacred guide. It might come to you as a god, as a spirit, or as a simple voiceless voice of certainty that rises deep within.
People who practice pagan paths have a lot of different types of mentors. Even more variety can be found along the fringes of it. Spirit-animals, ancestors, and deities are all called upon. For those coming up through Western magic, the quest for knowledge of, and communication with, the Holy Guardian Angel is the stuff of myth and ritual.
While we might debate the spiritual realities of these various mentors, expressing how we experience them and what it means, what binds them together is their function. Functionally, they all are very similar. Each of these mentors guides the spiritual development of the practitioner. They are there to guide us, and us alone, from where we are to where we need to be.
Back in the bad old days of the 90s, I was taught a harsh lesson: spiritual mentors lie. Just because they explain things convincingly, such explanations are not absolute. Such explanations are “for the moment” – a mentor’s goal is not your intellectual understanding, but your spiritual growth.ProTip: Spirit-mentors (like other mentors) lie and cajole and oversimplify to get you to do what needs to be done. They’ll tell you it’s the end of the world, that only you can save it. They’ll tell you that you’re special, and important, and necessary. They’ll do so because it’s the only way to motivate the average person.
Remember, when a spirit tells you you’re special, it’s proof that you’re not! Spirits don’t offer money. Ideology is a human thing, and they couldn’t care less. They’re not interested in compromise and negotiation. But hell, do spirits ever know how to play an ego when they need someone to act.
The third task is to break free of the walls of the self. Before we accomplish this task, everything we see is a mask over something that is. You’ll know that you’re off to a good start when you break the wall, peer out, and have that same feeling you do when you look over a cliff’s edge. That trepidation that freezes your calves and tightens your chest? That’s real progress.
When I talk about breaking free of the walls of the self, I don’t mean shattering the self and losing a hold of who and what you truly are. This is the hardest to explain because there is very little written on this topic. It is a challenge because this way lies madness.
So why would anyone ever take this challenge up? Because we are mages. We are shamans. We are witches. It is only through this journey that we can go beyond knowing there is magic and mystery in the world to becoming that magic and mystery ourselves.
Only by Crossing the Abyss, only by shattering the bubble of spiritual self-reflection with which we transfix ourselves, only by allowing the outside in and the inside out, can we grow. Before that, gods will look like people, and people will look just like us (and will bother us to the extent that they don’t).
Before we cross the abyss, we can know nothing. We can believe things with all our minds and all our hearts. It is only after we have completed this third task that we will truly know anything.
ProTip: The first three steps do not have to be done in that order. Each way of completing the triad comes with different risks. Since we rarely have any control over how we are called anyway, this isn’t about choosing our paths, as much as it is about understanding them.
As a shorthand, we might say that New Agers specialize in awakening the spirit. Pagans specialize in finding sacred mentors. But Crossing the Abyss is another thing. Without preparation, it is impossible to choose to cross. However, there are those who are forced across by life. These people are often thrown into madness. Crossing before you are prepared is a risky business!
When all three tasks on this quest have been accomplished, you will be something new. With an awakened spirit, sacred guidance, and clear vision, you will become magic itself. Only then will you know how freeing, and how limiting, that truly is.
What the Return looks like is different from one person to the next. For each of us, it is a matter of having built a tenuous connection between the soul and the outside world. Accomplishing this thing will not make you Doctor Strange . All of this work is done to accomplish one thing: to make you truly yourself.
The magic is inside of you. Maybe you can even feel it resonate at these simple words. The quest isn’t to believe it’s there, but to seek it out, to claim it and in turn be claimed by it.
ProTip: The Return is just the beginning. This quest seems unending and impossible, but it’s just the first steps into the world of magic.
In the West, we face a problem of not knowing (mythologically) how deep the rabbit hole goes or how real it is. Completing these four tasks is like getting a black belt, or a Ph.D. – it seems like a distant goal when you begin, but by the time you get there, you’ll know that you have only begun your real journey.