Definitions of “Spirituality” and “Magic”

Posted by Lydia

The following conversation occurred in a chat room with some friends in early 2021. We were discussing my vague plans for this website. This transcript is reposted with their permission.

James Bregan 

I would really love to see a definition of the terms “spirituality and magic” if you write about them Lydia (especially magic)

Particularly if your hope is introducing the ideas to others who are unfamiliar/skeptical

Lydia 

hmm interesting… I might prefer to figure out how to write an introduction that encourages people to not bother reading a given piece if they are skeptical 

Lydia 

Do you have a definition of spirituality that you like @James Bregan?

Benjamin Wachs 

On this point — it’s worth noting that I have a book coming out (early August is the date now, I believe) that is explicitly about what you could call “art magic” or “psychomagic,” and this is therefore an area I’ll be very interested in exploring as well. (Editor’s Note: The book is available for purchase now!!)

James Bregan 

I’ve thought a lot about that, but no, no clear definition I’ve settled on. If I spent a few hours focused on the question I think there’s a 50% chance I could come up with something, 50% chance I’d fail and decide it’s even harder than I already think 🙂

My definition would probably be in the direction of “study and/or practices intended to deepen one’s understanding of, and skillful relation to, one’s conscious experience”

James Bregan 

re: magic, I’m curious to press on this a little bit — 

previously you’ve expressed desire for NewMo/Eden to reach people outside its normal social circles, for the purposes of building cross-cultural epiphanies. Do you see this as part of the vision for this initial phase? 

Because if so, I predict content about magic to be fairly alienating if it’s written for readers who are already comfortable with the topic. Not just alienating for that particular piece of writing, but alienating for the blog in general. In my very limited experience (which is the point!), as recently as a couple of years ago (and after 10+ years of becoming fairly immersed with every other NewMo-represented subculture), my respect for “magic” was only mildly better than “flat earth”, which is to say I’d lose a lot of epistemic trust for anyone who seemed to be taking it seriously. (This is no longer the case; while still epistemically wary of the topic, I’m mostly confused and curious.)

Maybe I don’t really understand the audiences or vision here though!

Lydia 

@James Bregan I really appreciate you continuing to press on it! 

Lydia 

I run into multiple problems with trying to define magic for a skeptical audience, such as:

• It is harder than most things to define — magic as a paradigm includes all of reality

• Logical conversation is unpersuasive — the non-magic people I’ve talked to about magic do not get persuaded that it exists by talking about it. If they get persuaded that it exists, it is experiential, which is also how I got persuaded that it exists. From my experience and observations, there appear to be ways to transmit the experience, but (a) transmission is rarely (maybe never) consistent in a “scientific method” kinda way and (b) I have not (yet?) learned how to do even an inconsistent version of it

Lydia 

That said, there are slices of it that I can sort of try some definitions for: e.g. I could define one of the impacts on my consciousness of practicing magic as “perceiving and interpreting reality on a symbolic level”

Lydia 

It is rare that I get any mileage out of discussing it at all with people who don’t believe in it. The exceptions are people with really excellent epistemology skillz who treat me with respect during the conversation, e.g., @Jonathan Stray. Jonathan has been a really good thought partner for me about this stuff, in part because, as someone who had to deprogram himself from being raised in a literal abusive cult, he is very good at pointing out the common failure modes of magical thinking, which ironically has made my practice of magic much better even though Jonathan himself does not consider what I am doing to be real

Lydia 

In terms of the broader context, I agree that magic is a widely stigmatized belief system (by some because they think it’s not real… and by others because they think it is! haha). In that sense, magic is probably my biggest broad “weakness” as a topic that I want to write about.

It might be possible to talk me out of writing about it for this reason, or to talk me into using different language when I write about it (e.g.: systems such as “The Law Of Attraction” are not stigmatized in the same way that the broader term “magic” is stigmatized, so if I come up with other words for what I’m interested in describing, maybe that will be better). With that said, my intuition about it is that straight-up magic is on a cultural upswing towards acceptance (witness your own journey from seeing it as equivalent to “flat earth” thinking 10 yrs ago to now being “confused and curious”).

I have similar concerns about that cultural upswing as I did about the cultural upswing in BDSM’s popularity, and more recently, the cultural upswing in psychedelic popularity — there are real dangers and problems in all these cases and the mainstream does not seem to me to be remotely prepared — which means that those of us who know more about it have a responsibility to try to get safety information out there. But more importantly, the upswing brings an opportunity to coalesce a movement, which I think is also part of what @Benjamin Wachs is gesturing at with the notion of a “modern wisdom school.” When I was Clarisse Thorn, I was years ahead of BDSM going mainstream, but I knew it was coming and I have a similar feeling now

(OTOH I also thought Trump would win both the elections he competed in, so, take my predictions in that light)

James Bregan 

FWIW I spent a couple of years at Lumosity leading content for a (never really launched) mindfulness app, for which the aspiration was explicitly to (eventually) get into the deeper / more powerful aspects of the practice, while simultaneously having it be mainstream and accessible… I have a lot I can say on this topic, but in general I think the mindfulness world does a not-very-good job at this.

James Bregan 

anyway obviously mindfulness != magic, this is just to say that I have thought about this area of “conceptually accessible spirituality” a lot

Lydia 

That is super interesting. What are the core ways it doesn’t do a good job? (Not to ask you for too much typing but I’m def interested in whatever you are up for sharing)

Lydia 

Mindfulness and magic share a lot of practice — meditation is like the top recommended practice across methods of approaching magic

James Bregan 

Incoherence is a big one. For example a common fundamental instruction is to notice your present-moment experience as it is, without trying to change it. But scattered in a guided meditation might be instructions to relax tension if you notice any. Most people don’t consciously notice the apparent contradiction. But it subconsciously sends confusing messages, e.g. people might start to equate a feeling of tension during a sit as a “bad sit”. Confusion (incl subconscious confusion) is horribly demotivating to learning

James Bregan 

Unclear terminology is another… which is not at all to say things need to be technical in tone. But the word “mindfulness” has no agreed-on definition at all for example, and this ambiguity often isn’t even addressed. Even individual teachers will use the same word in different ways at different times

Lydia 

Yeah

James Bregan 

it’s often still wrapped in some … new-agey language, let’s say. Even among relatively mainstream folks like Tara Brach. There will be talk of heart centers, letting feelings flow through you, settling in to the present moment, etc

James Bregan 

these are all perfectly useful phrases that are trying to communicate clear things, but to a random Midwestern soccer mom who thinks yoga’s for hippies (apologies for the stereotype) it’s fairly alienating

Lydia 

I think it’s really really hard to make these systems even a little bit coherent. Major achievement of any organized religion imho

James Bregan 

Yeah it is a really hard problem, I register all of these complaints with respect and appreciation for all the teachers out there, just wish we were further ahead as a society in disseminating all this

James Bregan 

And some of it is communication/language, but a lot of it is that there just aren’t coherent underlying models to communicate

James Bregan 

even master teachers seem to have many bits and pieces and insights that don’t quite fit together into a cohesive whole

Lydia 

Yup. And it all seems to be culturally mediated and we (America) haven’t been very stable as a culture

James Bregan 

hmm nod. yeah that’s true

James Bregan 

regarding the meta, I think there is a Middle Way of naming the profound epistemological gaps while being honest that you might not know how to fill them yet

James Bregan 

I mean if we go back to say 1950, Western culture had virtually no handles to talk about mystical experience — maybe inextricably tangled with a Christian ontology, but no handles about the underlying mystical experience itself separate from that, or other aspects of consciousness

James Bregan 

and if one had just asserted in 1950 “We’re all one and one is love and love is god and god is you. You’ll just need to take my word for it” that conversation isn’t going to open many minds

Lydia 

I’ve heard there’s a bunch of stuff in some of the more flexible traditions like Sufism that talks about how traditions always need updating for new mindsets/ new generations

James Bregan 

but a conversation like “Look, I took this drug and had this [really profound experience]. I don’t know how to do this experience justice with words, and I don’t know how to make sense of it scientifically, but it felt profoundly important, and I think you should try this drug to see for yourself” is more approachable

James Bregan 

for example, “It’s a big problem that we don’t have a good definition of magic” would win significant epistemic trust from skeptical-James in a way that simply not addressing the issue would not

Lydia 

Why is it a problem? Honest question

Lydia 

Why would having a definition be better?

Lydia 

Would having a better definition of spirituality serve your spiritual practice in some way?

Benjamin Wachs 

Hopping back into this discussion after a day away. @James Bregan part of the reason that I refer to “art magic” and “psychomagic” is that I think these usefully refer to specific and real things. But another reason I focus on those is precisely that they can be defined in such a ay as to sidestep the thorny epistemological questions and still have a very useful discussion. It enables me to say “we’re talking about an art experience or a psychological experience people have — and what that experience is and what it does,” and leave the question of what is “objectively” happening to their discretion.

Because — and this is the crucial point — everybody has experiences of the spirit and the soul and the psyche. They may say “oh, well, we’re all just brain chemicals and so it’s just evolution using my brain chemicals to get me to have a specific experience that had survival value 50,000 years ago on the savannah,” but they have still had them. And … furthermore … for most people those experiences are actually the most powerful and profound and meaningful of their lives. They might not be willing or cognitively able to talk about them as “magic,” but they feel them that way. It resonates, and if you give them the room to interpret and express the experiences in a way that is compatible with their worldview, then suddenly a useful conversation can occur.

And once you can have that conversation — what these experiences are, how they work, what role they’ve played in your life — then suddenly people usually start to open up about how, yes, it really does seem like there’s something weird gong on, and the gates open up a bit to the way other people experience it … and suddenly you’re having a useful and interesting conversation about magical experiences. But it’s focused on the experiences themselves, rather than the epistemology of the experiences.

All of which is to say that I think close definitions are actually counter-productive. We’re dealing (as I wrote specifically about Burning Man culture) with orrthopraxies rather than orthodoxies – the important and useful questions are about practice and results, rather than about abstract definitions and epistemology.

Benjamin Wachs 

The most useful thing I can do in these kinds of conversations with someone who isn’t already at some level on board is to offer them an experience of art magic. “Will you do something with me?” And then, when we’ve gone through one of my psychomagical experiences, we can use that as the grounds for having a discussion. And it generally works pretty well.

Lydia 

“Orthopraxes”!

James Bregan 

‘Why would having a definition be better?’

mostly I meant it’s better for communication — just like having 9 different definitions for the word “racism” creates a lot of confusion and people talking past each other, talking about something like “magic” without a definition just means that people will (intuitively) fill in their own guesses about what you mean. which is fine if your audience has enough shared cultural context with you that their guesses will be mostly right! but counterproductive otherwise.

it might be helpful to clarify: I’m not necessarily advocating definitions that are technically precise or make claims about objective reality!

Lydia 

One of the weird things about magic (in my experience at least) is that things that happen involving magic seem to frequently happen in multiple ways corresponding to multiple definitions. I sometimes like checking the dictionary about stuff like this. But I don’t find the Merriam-Webster definition of magic satisfying

Lydia 

At any rate “occult” might be a better word for what I’m interested in discussing

Lydia 

There’s an old-ish occult maxim that the practice can be (described/defined?) as “to know, to will, to dare, and to be silent”

Benjamin Wachs 

@Lydia is going further out on that limb than I usually do — I generally wave away the supernatural to focus on the phenomenological. “What did you experience? What was it like? What did it do? What did it change?”

James Bregan 

the word “supernatural” carries a lot of weight in those Merriam-Webster definitions

‘su·per·nat·u·ral: (of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.’

“beyond [current] scientific understanding” is a relatively modest claim that is relatively easy for curious folk to be open to. “beyond the laws of nature” is a much stronger claim. this is one example of a distinction I think would be super useful for a working definition to make!

James Bregan 

(either one could make for an interesting discussion — but ambiguity about which is meant makes it hard to even understand what is being said)

Lydia 

I’m not sure what the laws of nature are

James Bregan 

yeah that’s a good point

James Bregan 

I interpret that as “laws of reality”

Lydia 

uh oh

Lydia 

… can I ask what reality is?

James Bregan 

@Benjamin Wachs I think a phenomenological definition is a perfectly useful one

James Bregan 

I don’t think “reality” in this context needs to be confined to “objective” (that is, intersubjective) reality, if that’s what you’re wondering

Lydia 

A definition of “reality” in Merriam-Webster appears to be “something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily”

James Bregan 

not sure that definition does much for me but I’d need to think about it

Lydia 

same 

James Bregan 

anyway when I read the definition of “supernatural” the more interesting part for me is “laws” vs. the “of nature” part

Benjamin Wachs 

I wouldn’t call it a phenomenological “definition” as I would a phenomenological path for the conversation. I do actually think the nature of the phenomenon itself makes it very difficult to pin down. In that sense, I think it might be like defining “sex.” Yes, you can take a very narrow “penis enters vagina” definition, and it’s not wrong, but it’s so obviously incomplete: it doesn’t take gay sex, lesbian sex, leather sex, or the vast panoply of eroticism where so much of the really interesting stuff happens into account. But attempting a definition beyond a very pragmatic one … I mean, hell, we can’t even get a really solid working definition of “pornography” … inevitably falls short in no small part because part of the nature of the phenomenon is to cross boundaries.

Benjamin Wachs 

If that makes sense.

James Bregan 

elaborating: one could use supernatural to mean “operating according to some laws, but laws which [are beyond our current understanding] / [only affect the subjective realm and so are not directly empirically/scientifcally measurable]”

or one could use supernatural to mean “something outside laws”, that is to say governed by no predictable laws at all. Which is a much stranger (I mean that technically not pejoratively) claim for me to make sense of.

Lydia 

I don’t have a good enough sense of how “magic” operates to make statements like that. Not sure anyone who is intellectually honest about it does

Lydia 

There do seem to be themes, such as “paradox”

James Bregan 

@Benjamin Wachs, that makes sense!

I think the comparison to sex/porn is really useful here. Agree that we can’t get a really solid working definition of pornography. and yet — if I was coming into a conversation having no idea what pornography was, then “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings” tells me a lot more than “you’ll know it when you see it” — even though the latter is pointing to something important and true

Benjamin Wachs 

At the risk of quoting Rupert Sheldrake (always a dicey proposition), it seems to me (again, being phenomenological here) that it doesn’t so much have laws as strong aesthetic preferences. There are no irrevocable rules, but you are dealing with a kind of poetic logic that requires convincing on its own terms to do something.

Benjamin Wachs 

I agree that having a broad definition of sex/pornography not intended to be comprehensive so much as to be useful to the conversation is a reasonable request. But I also think — and here I come back to a pragmatic approach — the question of which definition I’d use depends very much on what I’d want the conversation to accomplish.

Benjamin Wachs 

Rather than trying to make a given definition stick, I would (and have, and do) switch it up depending on whom I’m talking to and what I hope the conversataion will achieve.

James Bregan 

totally

James Bregan 

I am not advocating that you/we draft the One True Definition of magic and wage the Wikipedia edit war to make it stick

James Bregan 

(that’s a tongue-in-cheek example; I don’t actually think Wikipedia pages have supreme power over how language is used)

Lydia 

I haven’t really found a way to engage with its capabilities concretely aside from a kind of radical belief, or “faith” if you will

James Bregan 

I’m craving something like that wikipedia porn definition for magic

James Bregan 

speaking of which let’s see what wikipedia says

James Bregan 

‘Magic may refer to:

Magic (supernatural), beliefs and actions employed to influence supernatural beings and forces’

lol.

Lydia 

heh

Lydia 

Would something like “a spiritual practice based on will development” work?

James Bregan 

Feels like a piece of the picture

James Bregan 

though also sounds like something that could describe Jocko Willink’s life philosophy

James Bregan 

(and if that sounds like a stretch, then we have probably identified a case where a clearer definition of “spiritual” would be useful)

Lydia 

I’m looking around at what various magic authors have defined it as and seeing stuff like “magic is about changing consciousness”

James Bregan 

But like, seriously question though. Is Jocko Willink’s life philosophy a form of magic? My priors assumed not, but I don’t actually know.

Lydia 

Exactly! Shrug. This is where it starts getting wild

James Bregan 

Like one of my many theories, coming at this from a place of ignorance, is that “magic” is just a particular linguistic aesthetic skin around “manipulating one’s own conscious experience”

Lydia 

If magic is reality then all of us are doing magic all the time or something

James Bregan 

yeah

James Bregan 

so is jocko doing magic?

James Bregan 

ah I see your shrug reaction up above

James Bregan 

which is intriguing to me, it’s a very different answer from “obviously not”

Lydia 

I am unfamiliar with his work and persona but he looks a bit like other figures who I would say have something like magical power

Lydia 

But I would also say everyone probably does?

Benjamin Wachs 

See, this is the reason why I try to keep the discussion focused on experiences we can talk about, rather than definitional questions. I’m happy to say “yeah, let’s talk about the experience of magic as an experience of art” or “as a psychological experience you’ve had,” because otherwise we never get past this discussion of “what is it?” and “can you convince me it exists?” By then, if I’ve done this right, we’ve agreed that “it’s an experience you’ve had, and it exists as an experience,” and have gotten somewhere with that.

As a meta-discussion … talking about what we’re going to talk about, and how … I think this is a very useful conversation to have. But it’s exactly what I try to avoid when having a real, non-meta, conversation about the thing itself, out in the wild.

James Bregan 

I read … some link that maybe jstray posted here a couple months back? I forget, it was a website, or ebook, or FAQ or something about magic? I spent maybe a half hour browsing it and came away with some lightly-held impression that a lot of this is basically sober but fairly hardcore consciousness hacking

James Bregan 

Hm, I’m not trying to challenge you to convince me it exists.

Benjamin Wachs 

Oh, I know. You’re trying to figure out what the best entry point is. And I’m shrugging and saying “hey, man, all roads lead to Rome.”

Lydia 

here is a blog post from a few years back by a magic blogger about history and definitions

(^^^ I don’t necessarily promote that blog’s perspective for the record, but he has clearly done a lot of homework around this topic and I haven’t found reason so far to doubt his historical observations)

James Bregan 

@Benjamin Wachs (Ben?), do you think you could lead people in writing to have a magical experience?

James Bregan

Because part of my curiosity here is how readers would relate to this topic in the blog

Benjamin Wachs 

(“Benjamin” thank you. I have a strong preference for the full name, except in very specific and limited circumstances.)

James Bregan 

Apologies if I’ve missed that at any point here!

Benjamin Wachs 

It’s possible, but very tricky and probably not the route I’d go. And, indeed, not the route I did go in my book. What I do for a medium like that is take a very epistemologically humble approach to a narrow, more easily defined and understood, subsection of the whole thing (“art magic” and “psychomagic”) and use illustrative, real life examples, to draw out conclusions about how art and psychomagic can be used, encouraging people to relate it to their own lives and the experiences they’ve had.

Benjamin Wachs 

Over time, I let the weirdness build.

Benjamin Wachs 

(No worries about missing it in the past — in fact, I’m very grateful you asked.)

Benjamin Wachs 

For example — I visited the DeYoung Museum’s exhibit about Frieda Kahlo today (which did not impress me at all with its covid protocols but did impress me greatly as an exhibit), and was very struck by the way in which (among other things) she was clearly using her art to gain mastery and control over her physically wrecked body. Her self-portraits, her invention of her sartorial style, her turning her medical devices and casts into canvasses on which she created art … that’s some potent art magic right there, and something that can be written about in practical and insightful ways without having to ask anyone to make epistemological leaps. (Even if, over time, it invites them to)

James Bregan 

What extra work is the word “magic” doing there? Compared to if it was just “potent art?”

(maybe the answer here is “read the book”)

Benjamin Wachs 

I think there are ways in which “art” and “magic” are synonymous, but that this isn’t the common perception. “Art” by itself is too synonymous with “pretty pictures.” Calling it “art magic” instantly gives the recognition that it’s supposed to have an effect, that it’s doing something in the world, that in my experience isn’t conveyed by “art” alone.

Benjamin Wachs 

Just as I qualify “magic” by adding “art magic” to say “this is a very specific kind of thing we’re talking about” and narrow down the problem of definitions, I qualify “art” by adding “magic” to it, so as to indicate that we’re talking about a very specific kind of art here … one that needs to be thought of on its own terms.

James Bregan 

I think I have a sense of the sort of art you’re referring to

Benjamin Wachs 

Yeah, it’s not uncommon in our circles … but even in our circles we don’t have a very developed vocabulary for talking about it.

James Bregan 

this feels quite related to what Chicken John calls… what is it? Severe Comedy?

Benjamin Wachs 

Related, yes. Although it’s even more related to his use of the term Duende in the second book, The Book of the Un.

Benjamin Wachs 

(If you’re not aware, I was Chicken’s editor and frequent ghost writer for both of his books)

James Bregan 

oh no shit! I did not know that, but am both surprised and not surprised.

James Bregan 

I bought the first, at least. I don’t remember if I got the second.

James Bregan 

But what I remember was great!

Benjamin Wachs 

Thank you for reading it! I’m proud of that book. Yeah — my name’s on the cover in small type.

Benjamin Wachs 

I would not say that “severe comedy” is synonymous with “art magic,” but I do think it’s a useful technique that can be employed to get there.

James Bregan 

that seems right

James Bregan 

did some research, sharing a few notes and thoughts here.

James Bregan 

Crowley’s definition of magic: “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”

James Bregan 

Will in this context means True Will

‘True Will does not spring from conscious intent, but from the interplay between the deepest Self and the entire Universe. Thelemites in touch with their True Will are said to have eliminated or bypassed their false desires, conflicts, and habits, and accessed their connection with the divine. Theoretically, at this point, the Thelemite acts in alignment with Nature, just as a stream flows downhill, with neither resistance nor “lust of result”.’

This sounds pretty aligned with an enlightenment state

James Bregan 

Daniel Ingram is a controversial meditation teacher who I have mixed feelings about, but he is highly experienced, and also has the unusual trait of being really into magic for decades. so I googled him more to see if he could connect this to a frame of reference I understand more. He also tends to have relatively explicit, coherent models for things.

Ingram essay on magic from 2012

James Bregan 

‘Consciousness plus intention produces magick. Anything that was produced by these two, even if present in the smallest way, is a magickal act or product.

This broad definition of magick, while more correct than less inclusive ones, can be limiting, so I will define two subsets of magick for the sake of discussion:

Ordinary Magick: that which most people wouldn’t call magick, and involves what the ordinary person generally believes to be simple intentions leading to actions, like lifting a spoon or composing a symphony. For the sake of clarity, I will call ordinary magickal effects simply ordinary effects.

Extraordinary Magick: includes the levels of causal effects that are beyond what most people consider the ordinary world of cause and effect, i.e. the realm that science, with the occasional exception of particle physics, considers mythical. In short, what most people would call magick, regardless of whether or not they believe in it, would fall into this realm, including magickal effects from “ordinary actions,” that is effects beyond what ordinary people imagine come from what they misperceive to be simple, non-magickal acts. For the sake of clarity, I will call extraordinary magickal effects simply magickal effects, realizing that this may cause confusion in those not understanding the full implications of the broad definition of magick.’

James Bregan 

Here’s a commenter on that essay:

Daniel [Ingram] said: “This example brings up another sub-point of great profundity: it is impossible to distinguish between spell casting and prognostication. It is purely a matter of convention. One could just as easily say that your internal experience of willing him to do something was actually just clues about what was going to happen anyway. Causality doesn’t care one way or the other.”

This has ended up being a fairly significant point for me, as it gradually came to seem to me to be the only relevant operating factor. I spoke to a Tibetan lama and a Benedictine monk about it, and both offered the same perspective. That the more “realized” or “holy” a person is (I would substitute the term “awake”), the more this is what’s going on. Such a person’s intentions/prayers/magick are more effective than those of a beginner because he is more aligned with ultimate reality, and intuitively knows what to ask for (that will already happen) or what won’t work.

James Bregan 

That’s cool. That’s one fairly coherent model: Powerful magic is practices or skills that connect one so deeply to “one’s” consciousness (“one” in quotes as the concept is less applicable at this depth) that full wisdom, unmediated by greed or attachment, is present. This wisdom allows one to more clearly see and predict how reality is unfolding. These deep predictions may manifest as conscious intentions, which from the naive egoic perspective feel like one is changing the future with free will, but from the wise perspective these intentions are simply arising as part of the conditions and natural laws by which reality is unfolding. 

Lydia 

Yes! I had this realization a few years back that I framed as “spellcasting is arguably the same as divination”

Lydia 

I have thought about it a lot ever since

Lydia 

Thank you for bringing the Ingram commenter’s framing 🙂 I hadn’t seen it explicated anywhere, and generally when I have brought it up with other practitioners it has been hard to explain what I mean, except for one other occult practitioner who was like “yep.” This is part of why I want to write about this stuff, because there’s just a ton of weirdness and insight to it, and I don’t want to just be talking to people I know to be other practitioners about those weirdnesses and insights anymore

Lydia 

wrt what to ask for/ what will happen, I have a lot of intuitions around what to ask for that have been interesting to explore, but it’s been hard for me to understand what they mean or what their implications are… and my experience of agency and free will has become seemingly unusual at some points in the process

Lydia 

… I am uncertain how “awake” I am though 

James Bregan 

wrt what to ask for/ what will happen,

I’m not sure what this is referring to. you mean what to ask for from magical practice?

my experience of agency and free will has become seemingly unusual at some points in the process

FWIW Sam Harris has the clearest things to say about free will that I’ve encountered, and it seems completely consistent w/the stuff discussed above. It very much shaped my perspectives on the topic. He’s got this stuff in brief audio essay form now within his Waking Up app.

James Bregan 

also I’m curious coming out of this thread if my advocacy for defining one’s terms lands any differently now than it did at the beginning

Lydia 

you mean what to ask for from magical practice?

in some sense engaging with magic (especially stuff like “casting spells” or “using sigils” or what have you) involves asking the universe for things (or demanding them depending on your frame of reference)

Lydia 

wrt definitions, I can see how defining terms can illuminate the discussion even if it doesn’t lead to a definition

Benjamin Wachs 

A few quick addendums to this discussion. As far as definitions of magic go, we could consider Francis Bacon’s definition in De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum (1663): “Magic aims to recall natural philosophy from a miscellany of speculation to a greatness of work.” And that “as the science which applies the knowledge of hidden forms to the production of wonderful operations; and by uniting (as they say) actives with passives displays the wonderful works of nature.”

Which is not a definition I particularly endorse or find useful — quite the contrary in fact. I just like pointing out that Francis Bacon, like René Descartes and Isaac Newton and most of the other “founders of science” in fact believed in magic and saw their work as part of its tradition.

Benjamin Wachs 

But more sincerely, I came across this quote recently of Bruno Latour’s: “Do not trust those who analyze magic. They are usually magicians in search of revenge.”

Which is a statement I happily endorse and think we might have to turn into wall art of some kind.

Benjamin Wachs 

As to the experience of free will in magic … the phenomenon of feeling like one’s will has become part of some greater will is something I have very much experienced and identify with. But I also wouldn’t say it’s synonymous with magic. Quite the contrary. Speaking as someone who engages in a lot of both highly developed and highly improvisatory psychomagic, I can say I have found there to frequently be a big difference in how that experience of connection to a “larger will” comes and goes. Many times I have had, for example, the experience of offering someone a psychomagical experience that by that point for me is kind of routine and going through the motions — but their experience is no less startling and even shocking because of it.

So I don’t think I can say that I regard the sublimation of the will to the Greater Than to be definitional for “magic” as a whole. But it is certainly a part of some magical experiences. In fact, I once had a conversation with Crimson Rose in which she said that for her “ritual” (which for purposes of this discussion I think can be seen as synonymous with a form of “magic”) was specifically to set the conditions whereby one can reach out to something “greater than,” that one doesn’t understand, and get on its wavelength, in a manner. of speaking. I think she’s really on to something. But again, I don’t regard that as definitional for the whole of it.

Postscript from Lydia: In the months since I had this conversation with my friends, I ran across a definition of “magic” that goes like this: “The ability or power to alter one’s consciousness at will.” I get a lot of mileage out of this definition partly because it does an end-run around the question of whether magic has an external impact, by offloading that part on to the listener’s beliefs about whether internal consciousness can affect the external world or not, and if so in what ways. This definition seems common among people who have gone down a scholarly path with this material, have read a lot of books and put a lot of thought into what an elegant, minimal definition would look like. I haven’t found a great definition of “spirituality,” though. Also: Remember that you can buy Benjamin’s book here!

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