Over the years I have been involved in many spiritual organisations, from Magickal groups to religions, and have been very struck by how people are able to function on a high spiritual level whilst at the same time have no grasp of psychology – their own, other people’s, and the group’s. This lack of awareness has often led the individuals and the group into spectacular disaster, as it did with the famous Magickal order, the Golden Dawn. Looking at the history of such groups, especially the Golden Dawn, I cannot help but think how much they would have benefitted from good quality psychological awareness and supervision.
I have to declare an interest here: I am a psychotherapist by profession, with thirty years’ experience in the practice of psychotherapy and teaching and supervision; so I decided to look at why there has been a deficit of psychological awareness in Magickal groups and what we can learn from it to help us do this better.
I am going to have to be very honest. I have the highest regard for the creators of the Golden Dawn and its members. It is clear to me that many of them were geniuses, and together they created something truly amazing. Many of them also excelled in the secular world, especially in the creative arts. Yet, at the same time, many of them behaved like complete clowns; to the extent that a superficial reader many come away thinking that they were all charlatans, self-deluded idiots and dysfunctional, time-wasting fools. Their bumbling about and posturing would cause most people to despair of them, and to draw a line underneath an embarrassing footnote in Edwardian life. So how, I thought, could I reconcile these two quite opposite impressions? This question has led to my current enquiry.
It’s all in the mind!
How often have heard this criticism leveled at Magick and spiritual work from people who are outside it. It’s just a delusion, they tell us, and you are just fooling yourself. All this Magick stuff is all about dressing up in nice robes, waving wands and posturing, and it’s probably an excuse to have perverted sex, anyway. None of it is real; none of it can be proved; it’s all just a product of your twisted mind!
I don’t take most of this very seriously. It’s not my job to convince anybody that Magick is real, and ultimately the only way to prove it is to experience it. Magickal practice will always be a minority interest, and that’s fine by me – I’m no evangelist. But there is one thing we have to take seriously, because it is true: Magick IS all in the mind.
Having started with this contentious statement, I think that we need to set some parameters so that we know what we are talking about. It is common in spiritual and Magickal discourse to be vague – after all, these things are not easy to express in material terms. But unless we know what we are talking about, we are not going to have a very helpful discussion. So let me suggest a model of thinking that might be helpful.
Magick is not something different from the rest of life. Everyone does Magick, all of the time – Magick is an inherent human quality. The biblical concept that humans are created ‘be tselem Elohim’, in the ‘image’ of God, means that human beings share the divine ability, on a much smaller scale, obviously, to create out of nothing, and to create with a word. The classic magic word Abracadabra comes from the Hebrew/Aramaic expression ‘abara ce dabra’: ‘I have created as I have spoken’. We see the process whereby something which occurs in the human imagination is transformed into reality. Not, clearly, by merely speaking. As an example of Magick, Aleister Crowley chose the process whereby his book was published. It originated in his head, he transferred it to paper, he summoned his familiar spirits (the printers) and the result was a physical object. The Magickal creative cycle is: 1) know, 2) will, 3) act, 4) contain. It starts in the mind, and it is no coincidence that the first word of the Hebrew bible is ‘bereshit’. This is usually translated as ‘in the beginning’, but also can mean ‘in the head’. All creativity starts within the mind. It also involves working hard. Material achievement and Magickal work are different, but the process is fundamentally the same.
So what, you may ask, is the difference between a Magickian and everyone else? The Magickian is a professional. S/he studies and learns in a disciplined way, applies this learning, acquires skills and then takes action accordingly. The Magickian is conscious of what s/he is doing, and takes steps to bring it about. Over the door of the ancient mystery schools is written ‘Know Yourself’, and someone who is not aware of their own impulses, needs, desires and drives is likely to be controlled by them. Magick is a way of taking what is natural human skill and applying theory, experience and awareness to it to create a clearly defined goal.
How is self-knowledge achieved? To answer that we need a bit of theory, so let’s look at the four world of the kabbalah.
The first dimension is Assiyah, the material, the physical, the world of doing. From our current perspective we can see it as the body: health, fitness, comfort, activity, prosperity; and all the stuff that goes into Earth.
The next is Briah, the psychological. This is about emotions, relationships, interactions and dynamics. It is about not what we do but why: motivations, drives, meanings and connections.
The third level up is Yetzirah, the psychic world. This is the dimension that we usually are not aware of. We see it out of the corner of our eye at evening; it is beyond the fields we know; its inhabitants are shy and retiring.
The fourth is Atzilut, the spiritual or divine. This is a place where all becomes one, and where all questions are answered.
There are some things to note about these four worlds. The first is that as they get higher they become less easy to describe. The bottom one, Assiyah, is solid and concrete. We live there all the time, so this world is the best known to us. As we go up we can say less about each one; not because there is nothing to say but because we do not have the right words to express it. The second thing is that the lowest world is the most specific. In Assiyah, I am me and this computer in front of me is not me. This key A is not the key B. but as we go higher things tend to merge together. The psychological world is more fluid than the material, and in the psychic things can be more than one thing at a time. On the divine level all is One. Another useful point is this: the worlds are not distinct but overlap. They are usually described as circles, where the next circle starts from the centre if the first, and the third starts from where it touches the first. They shade together, so we are never purely in one world, but going out of one into the other.
These processes are like a ladder, bringing the person from floor to ceiling, whilst still touching the floor. To miss out one of them is like missing out a rung: possible but dangerous and undesirable.
If we were to miss out the physical, take no care of our bodies, or eat and drink, or wear anything, we would soon be good for nothing and totally unable to function. Psychological and spiritual work would be impossible, even if we were monks or hermits. It is clear to everyone that awareness of the body and the material is a vital part of self-awareness, and ignoring it would literally prove fatal.
So too, as we move up, psychological awareness is necessary. We don’t always die of lack of psychological care, but sometimes, both physically and emotionally, we do. But quite often we muddle along with minimal psychological awareness and hope that this will be enough. Now for someone who just wants to live on a physical level, this might be OK. But for someone who aspires to something higher, such as a Magickian, jumping the psychological rung is a major problem, and I would suggest that the huge problems that have beset Magickians and Magickal groups have largely stemmed, not from a lack of awareness about Magick but from a lack of awareness about psychology.
All spiritual groups operate in a paradox: in order to learn anything from them, the member needs to have some humility; but people who come into magick have typically massive egos and are motivated by a need to be better than everyone else. Clearly, this is a recipe for potential disaster.
How often have we seen Magickal orders collapse because of the pride and egotism of the leader, who refuses to admit to ever being wrong? How often have we seen spiritual Gurus turn out to be abusers or money-motivated sharks? At the same time groups descend into chaos because members do not have the humility to put their egos to one side. They prefer to see the group fail rather than get on with people they dislike.
In my own psychotherapy practice I do a lot of work, not surprisingly, with spiritually-minded people. This can range from spiritual direction with clergy, coaching for leaders of Magical orders, to supporting people to be free from cults. This covers a wide range, obviously, but there is one common theme: personal psychological awareness is the key to success, and more psychological awareness earlier on would have prevented most of the problems they subsequently faced.
This might be a good moment, then, to answer the question above: how is self-knowledge achieved?
In fact all human faculties have an area of self-awareness and knowledge. If I eat to excess or get drunk, I know more about myself. If I run a marathon or climb a mountain, I will know myself and my potential much better by the end. The more in touch I am with my feelings, the better will be my sense of self and my relationships with others. The more emotionally healthy I am, the better I can relate appropriately to others and release my creativity. The more I develop psychically, the better and richer my Magickal work will be. And as for the divine; well, that is my ultimate destination.
There is another question that is frequently leveled at psychology: isn’t self-awareness just another form of egotism, just feeding the self-absorption of the ‘me-generation’? Now it is not for me to tell others what their motivations should be – if you want to be self-obsessed, fine, just don’t do it round me. But my actual experience of people who have worked on themselves psychologically – and that includes hundreds of clients, students and colleagues – is that they are not self-centred. They tend to be open, generous, thoughtful, altruistic and very aware of other people and their feelings. They are healers, therapists, nurses, spiritual leaders, social workers and teachers. They are usually in the helping professions rather than being bankers, loan-sharks, arms dealers or drug pushers.
I strongly believe that personal psychological development, at the very least (and I would recommend a serious course of psychotherapy) should form part of any Magickal training course and Magickal order work; as it does in the Magick training that we run.