Of the Limitlessness of Magic

There is an epidemic: magicians who don’t believe in magic. This takes many forms, from Western ritualists who don’t understand even the rudiments of astrology upon which most Western ritual magic is founded to activists who think that magic is just performance art, from witches who think it’s a fashion statement to Crowley fans who think it’s all psychoanalysis with fancy costumes—it’s a plague of missing the point. For the most part, I don’t care. People will do what they want to do, and usually do what makes them feel good regardless of how much good it actually does. Those who crave something deeper, however, will often find themselves stuck in these whirlpools of occult stagnation simply because that’s how they’ve been taught and don’t know of alternatives. I’ve seen too many promising students simply retreat back to normality because nothing they’d read or been given worked.

Even worse, the occult world is filled to overflowing with well-educated, intellectual, pop culturally aware magicians with perfectly acceptable political views—in short, utterly respectable people who are more concerned with looking respectable than they are with challenging themselves or the boundaries of the structures around them. Prioritizing social acceptability and cultural relevance over looking into dark corners and knowing wonders does not an esoteric adventurer make.

I normally do not discuss my own experiences with these things in public, and very rarely even in private. I take that tired old “To Keep Silent” thing pretty seriously, besides which it generally does no good for anybody to talk details. I’m momentarily breaking that rule, however, because I want to remind you that weird things happen. This isn’t the most impressive such tale, nor is it presented as evidence or proof of anything; it is an anecdote intended to illustrate that while these practices may be primarily mental in nature, the power unleashed thereby is not therefore all in our heads.

Years ago, I purchased a sword to use in my magical practice. I was doing some work at the time as a diviner and healer, and so needed to have my magical toolkit as full as possible for any eventuality and had to replace my last sword for an assortment of reasons. I went looking with certain criteria in mind: it had to be simple in design, full tang, balanced enough not to be awkward in my hand, and hypothetically usable as an actual weapon. The one I purchased was very blunt-edged, but able to be sharpened. I was alright with that at the time because I didn’t want my cat hurting herself on it in my one-room living arrangement.

I had been working through the evocation practices of Franz Bardon’s Practice of Magical Evocation at the same time and was at the point of going through the elemental realms and making allies in each of them, evoking said allies to visible appearance one at a time to fully integrate the forces of the elements on every level. I decided then to use the opportunity of evoking a particular elemental lord with whom I had made contact for the consecration of my new sword. The ritual went particularly well, lasting no more than an hour; I carried out my evocation according to my usual rubric and, having place the sword in the area of manifestation in advance, requested that great spirit to “bless and empower the sword in the name of the Most High and Most Inward God that it may serve me in all operations of magic henceforth”, etc. So far, so good.

Having concluded the operation, I ensured that the spirit had returned from whence I had invited him, closed the temple down and took a few minutes of rest before packing everything away inside my altar cabinet. As I took up the sword to return it to its leather scabbard for storage, I noticed that something had changed. Most immediately, it felt lighter in my hand. This being a purely subjective thing, I assumed that it was just my brain responding to the preceding ritual action but then, as I looked at the blade to guide it home, I noticed something a touch more dramatic: it was no longer blunt!

As the sword had never left the corner in which I stored my altar and magical supplies in my loft room, I was left to understand that the edge of my sword had been sharpened at some time during the ritual of evocation. 

Once again, I do not offer this anecdote as proof, for no anecdote can be proof to another of anything and to the individual supplying the story only insofar as it proves that an experience was had. I supply it, however, as an example, however minor, that the forces we work with in spiritual practice of any sort (magical, theurgic, alchemical, meditative, or whatever) are not mere psychological complexes with no relation beyond symbolic with the world around us. The psychological aspects of these forces do exist, and are generally those with which we have the most direct relationships; if, however, we take seriously the fundamental esoteric doctrine that we are all integrated, even if unconsciously, with the Totality, it must be that these points of psychological connection are just our first-line interfaces with a Reality able to reveal so much more of itself to us as we make ourselves open to it and are gifted with its revelations. Just as many traditions hold that gods are showings-forth of the All-in-One through a variety of faces, the spirits with which a magician forms relationships and the individual consciousness of the magician himself are also such masks. If I and every single manifest person or thing with which I interact are all Self-revelations of the deepest living Truth, how can I doubt that wonders occur?

Esoterism contra Exoteric Universalism

Quite often, when an esoteric view is expressed, the listener hears a universalist statement. We must define our terms carefully in order to clarify the point.

Universalism is the view that all religious and spiritual modalities wind up at the same salvation in the end, regardless of differences and distinctions in character or application. This is popularly expressed as “all religions are basically the same” or, with somewhat more sophistication, “all paths lead to the same goal.”

Esoterism is a focus on the way in which any given religion or spiritual modality may be turned inward upon itself so that the individual practitioner may also turn inward upon himself. Esoterism is the sum of mysticism, gnosis, and magic—what the author of Meditations on the Tarot refers to as Hermetic philosophy or what Schuon calls Perennial Philosophy or Traditional Metaphysics.

Esoterism states that the possibility of inwardness exists in principle in any authentic religious or spiritual tradition while acknowledging that it is more difficult to access in some than in others, sometimes considerably so to the point of practical impossibility. A religion may be called spiritually alive insofar as this possibility is actualized in the persons of living representatives of that tradition.

An esoterist will certainly focus on the practice of a particular tradition but, unlike the purely exoteric (outward) religionist, will not be uncomfortable with taking lessons from or even engaging in the practices of a genuinely living religion or spiritual tradition. What works, works. To put it more concretely: A Yogi who has, even for the briefest moment, touched the feet of God will feel no discomfort in the magical application of the Psalms. Game recognize game.

The Diamond Crucible: A Review of “The Awakening Ground” by David Chaim Smith

Full disclosure: I was given a review copy of this book by Inner Traditions & David Chaim Smith.

I’m not crazy for philosophy for its own sake. Whether the formulations of a Kant or the volcanism of a Nietzsche, for every insight into how to live so as to experience Reality, there are at least ten parts of conceptual ballast seemingly custom-made to keep us in our mental cages. The same can be said to varying degrees of formal theology; everything we try to say about God is a potential pitfall we’ll need to leap to find Him. But when I read from, say, Frithjof Schuon—a metaphysician whose only philosophy and theology is in how the mind must interpret experience of the Subject—I see a bridge built over so many of these bear traps of mere reason. The mind is stilled and the intellect exalted by the scintillation which the writer was able to leave on the page. While there is no chance of leaving the whole experience for the reader to find, even a crust of bread may be enough to awaken hunger in one who has long forgotten their belly’s ache, or sustain one who has walked the path on very little food.

The occult world is nearly as barren as that of philosophy. Very few occultists have even an inkling of the marrow’s presence, let alone the tools necessary to break the bone to get at it. Different personalities require different tool kits; we each have unique gaps in our existing repertoire. Given that so much of Western occultism is built from the bricks of Kabbalah and the mortar of Alchemy, David Chaim Smith uses that language to fill in holes in the lore of occult theory and practice. Where occultism, being somewhere between religion and philosophy, finds itself so often bogged-down in dualism by default, Smith’s writing and art turn the same principles applied in the operations of sorcery to the task of nondual contemplation.

What I have read from Smith in the past has seemed to provide paths and keys to extremely specific gateways within the kabbalistic structure—essentially trails of breadcrumbs and details of an intimidatingly extensive map—while his newest The Awakening Ground: A Guide to Contemplative Mysticism is more a companion who walks just by the side of the aspirant. All of Smith’s writing and art is remarkable for the density of meaning which it contains, so a cursory reading will not be sufficient for most people. His is the twilight language of poetry, though wrapped in the packaging of occult philosophy and the imagery of Kabbalah.

The Awakening Ground is far closer to a “how-to” manual than we have seen before from this author. But, given that his audience are largely occultists and ritual magicians with some prior kabbalistic study under their belts, there is not much here which is friendly to the casual mindfulness junky or the trendy chaos magic crowd. If you are a magician looking for the Key to the Kingdom, tired of treading water with Crowley and his spawn, however, this may be just the thing you’ve been thirsting after; no hand-holding but a remarkably lucid presentation—including symbolic diagrams—of the beating heart of kabbalistic Yoga.

Like any book which plumbs such depths of a tradition’s actual application, The Awakening Ground is not for everyone. If your mental temperament requires a less structured model, Kabbalah in general probably isn’t for you. But for those whose every fiber thrums at sight of the Tree of Life while thirsting for the soma of Gnosis beyond all forms, David Chaim Smith’s The Awakening Ground is a guide you’ll be pulling off the shelf for refreshment for many years. Those same shining sparks one sees in the complex connections of Schuon’s metaphysics are present here in the windswept yet crystalline-clear architecture for the daring occultist truly looking to distill the quintessence from her Art.

As to the artifact itself, don’t expect one of Smith’s usual Fulgur Limited art books. It is a mass-produced hardcover with art book pages, closer to something from Taschen. This isn’t a complaint, though. The text is easy on the eyes and the artwork is crisp and well-shaded; you won’t have any trouble at all either reading it or making out the fine details of the diagrams and meditative pieces. In short, the book is a good quality for a mass market hardcover which befits its more practical contents.