Sizing Up Your Magical Practice

Sizing Up Your Magical Practice
by Mordant Carnival on 2007-06-04 11:10:59
tags: magic, mordant carnival

(Or, how not to end up in a tinfoil hat.)

It’s the aim of this article to look at ways of appraising your magical practice, offering a few approaches and techniques to make sure things are on track as far as effectiveness goes and also to avoid some of the more common pitfalls along the way. It’s not always possible to apply the scientific method per se to this kind of work but the techniques and approaches associated with scientific investigation are applicable in many cases and can be very useful. This doesn’t mean trying to prove that magic works, putting together a study that could find a home in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society laying out evidence that Wednesday’s sigil working was responsible for your getting laid last night. Since magic is such a nebulous beast, an experiential business with unprovables being kicked around all over the shop and subjectivity agogo, it is frequently a logical impossibility to talk in terms of proof and not necessarily desirable anyway. However, this does not mean that we have to give up all notion of a meaningful assessment of the success or otherwise of a working or a practice, an assessment based on discernment, critical thinking, logic and rationalism. “Proving” that magic works, or that a particular spell worked, is not the point. The point is analysing your results and your overall progress in an intelligent and meaningful way.

Does this go with my stuff?

There is nothing so important for the functioning magician as the continual and rigorous appraisal of her practice from a variety of perspectives. This applies whether your focus is on meatspace gain – money, power, hookers, blow – or on the more mystical aspects of magical activity: spirit contact, Deity work, techniques such as journeying, etc. One of the most useful toolkits for investigating the overall worth of one’s practice is that provided by science.

Many magicians manifest a powerful resistance to anything that smacks of rationalism or science being brought within range of their practices. The unholy sphere of science is something to be kept at arms’ length, alternately spat upon as worthy only of scorn and cringed away from as a terrible, inimical force. I see this behaviour across all paths and all modes of magic, from the cheesecloth-draped crystal healer to the leather-clad chaote. Wannabe modern-day Doctor Faustuses sneer at the sheeplike mundanes who choose to hide from the Tenebrous Horrors of the Magyckal World behind their fragile screen of smug rationality, while the never-again-the-burning-times Fnanp mob denounce critical thought and evaluation as “masculine” and at odds with their holy tradition of making shit up as they go along.

If your practice is so frail and so flaky that the least breath of critical assessment would pop it like a soap-bubble, then you need to sort yourself out a better practice. End of story. If it’s working you have nothing to fear; if it’s not, you have nothing to lose.

Big Deal

But why is it so important? Does it really matter if a person is working effective magic or not? Does magic have to be for anything to be worthwhile?

Yes. There is a place for ritual and magic as performance, or art, or best of all play. However, magic, to be truly called magic, must be performed with some kind of ends in mind, whether it be for material gain, personal development and healing, closer union with your particular flavour of the Divine, protecting, succouring or empowering others, or for less well-defined outcomes- “let’s do X and see what happens!” is aiming for an outcome before knowing what that outcome will be.

Whatever else we may be or have the potential to become, here and now we are finite creatures with finite resources. Time and effort spent working magic is time and effort that cannot be applied elsewhere. Time and effort spent repeatedly undertaking workings that don’t work or engaging in practices that are of no utility is time and effort wasted.

Worse still, failure to realistically evaluate results can permit actively toxic processes to flourish. For a start, ritual can all too easily become an avoidant tactic, a doing-things flavoured way of not doing things. On a personal level, this manifests as a tendency to prioritise ritual over the more practical steps required to solve one’s problems or improve one’s situation. Absolutely you’ll finish your maths homework – the very minute your academic success servitor is activated. Of course you’ll spend some time on your personal grooming and self-care – after you’ve written a few more pages of your Get A Girlfriend narrative hypersigil. Yes, you’ll fill in that application form – just as soon as you’ve finished this ritual to find the perfect job. You can hardly wait to spend a pleasant half-hour chatting with your honey – right after you’ve completed your Domestic Bliss working. (Repeat till unemployed.)

If your practice is concerned to any degree with mysticism or spirit contact, grave risks attend poor work and ineffective methods. The God- or spirit-botherer is at risk of losing herself in the imbecilic chatter of the little mind gremlins that live in all our heads. From the perspective of the spirit model, she can also attract the attention of creatures which, whilst external, are not what or who they claim to be. (Few critters are daft enough to claim to be a God, because whilst it may buy them more time and attention than they’d otherwise get, the real McCoy will eventually become aware of what’s happening and will be most displeased. It does happen, however.)

General good practice

Tomes of Forbidden Lore

Any scientific study requires rigorous and detailed documentation. Likewise, the key to an effective assessment of your magical practice is good record keeping. If you don’t make careful, detailed records of what you did, when you did it, and who you did it with, it’s much harder to keep track of success, failures, and where your path is taking you generally. This might seem like an obvious statement and it’s certainly been made many times before by far more prestigious magicians than your correspondent, but still people overlook the importance of good journalling habits. You should have at least one journal that you update regularly – preferably daily, although I know how that is. Ideally I would say you should keep several journals: one for dreams, one for your day-to-day life and so on. Internet weblogs can be useful, especially if you want feedback, but do be careful what you reveal. Even if you engage the privacy settings available on some blogging tools, you can never guarantee that what you write will not get out and once it’s out it’s there forever. As a rule, don’t put anything on the internet that you would not write on a postcard.

Your main magical journal should be kept a lot like a lab book; in fact, I like to keep my ritual journals in students’ lab books if I can get hold of them, the sort with lined page for notes on one side and a graph-paper page for diagrams, sketches etc. on the other. Get into the habit of making a careful note of any info you think you may find useful.

Tenebrous Bretheren

It’s always good to touch base with other magicians and occultists from time to time. Even if you don’t join an organised group, talking things over with other people (preferably from a range of trads) will help you get a more meaningful perspective on your work. People who are not directly wrapped up in your working can offer more objective critique. They can also inspire you to look at new directions and new techniques that you otherwise might not have hit upon. It’s a sad (and well known fact that magicians and occultists can go a bit funny without social contact.

Nothing is Sacred

Be prepared to question everything. No matter how long, no matter sincerely and passionately you have you have held a theory or a model, be prepared to have it challenged. Actively seek out people, spaces and experiences which will offer such challenges.

It’s sometimes necessary to take certain foundational concepts as read in order to proceed realistically with a certain course (eg. “Magic is real”), but it’s healthy to allow oneself to step outside of those assumptions now and again. It is also important to distinguish between a conviction born of repeated experience and one born of sentimentality or the aesthetic appeal of a pet model. You must be ready to ditch things when they aren’t working or when they do not accord with the best available information.

What have you done? Dear God, Carruthers-Blenkinshawe, what have you DONE?

The Shoehorn of Lordly Might

When evaluating a result the very first question that you need to ask is “have I actually done any magic?”

You’d be surprised how often that little detail gets skimmed over. I was once involved in an internet discussion wherein a web-based group working was mooted. The idea was to pick a succession of suitable targets, conduct workings, and present the inevitable successes to passing sceptics as evidence of magic’s effectiveness. Someone suggested that a bit of rainfall in America might be a pleasant and useful thing to have; another person suggested Phoenix. Shortly thereafter, it so happened that Phoenix experienced some unexpected rainfall. This was immediately claimed as a very palpable hit, and much back-slapping ensued. When someone turned up to posit the awkward question “But what did you actually do?” that person was roundly castigated as a spoilsport. When pressed, those involved admitted that, n-o-o-o, they hadn’t performed any magic as such, but they’d thought about it and it had happened. Like when you think about raising your arm and it goes up. The claim was made, quite seriously and in all earnestness, that five or six people had caused the rainfall by talking about it over the internet. Anyone disputing this was clearly only doing so out of malice or ignorance.

Of course, since one cannot prove a negative it’s impossible to prove that the rain was not caused by half-a-dozen wannabe Captain Planets chatting about it on a messageboard, but the contingency would appear to be an unlikely one. It’s also notable that minor details such as looking for further suitable targets and thrashing out what constituted evidence got rather lost in all the ensuing self-congratulation and defensiveness. Needless to say, the project rapidly foundered.

Half-baked magic

As well as doing no magic at all, there is also the ever-popular lazy, half-baked and poorly put-together working.

“Okay, so this corner of the chest-of-drawers can be my altar – can’t be bothered to clean off the rest of it – and this paper hanky can be my altarcloth. My elemental tools are in a box somewhere, so I’ll be improvising with picnic cutlery, a lump of Plasticine, and an empty beer can. Ritual attire? I’m wearing my Alchemy pendant with the wizard on it, aren’t I? Oops, better stick the telly on – don’t want to miss Star Trek…”

I’m not saying that every single ritual has to be conducted like a military operation, or that you’re not a proper mage unless you have the shiniest rose-quartz tipped wand in the window of Rainbow Dolphin’s Crystal Faire, a velvet dressing-gown and a stupid hat. I’m a big fan of improvisational magic and am firmly of that school of thought which states that any half decent magician should be able to sort out a basic working stark naked and locked in the bathroom at 3am (and not your bathroom, with the toothpicks and razorblades and jars full of marbles on the windowsill and cosmetics everywhere, I mean a boring bathroom with nothing but bog-roll, soap and a can of Glade). However, if you’re not stark naked and locked in the bathroom there’s no excuse for poor preparation and shoddy work. One comes across a lot of magicians who seem to almost compete with each other over who has the most mediocre and slapdash practice, as if this was some index of down-to-earthness and Regular Guy status. Any sign that you might be putting too much thought or effort into a working is an indication that you are an old-aeon fuddy-duddy, not a cutting-edge 21st century technomage.

This is, of course, a load of cobblers. Decent preparation is not window-dressing, it’s the foundation for a good solid working. Putting together decent kit of whatever character is appropriate to your trad does not lock you into a rigid practice unless you choose to let it. It’s true that performing the odd rite on the spur of the moment using whatever comes to hand is a great way to break any dependence you might be developing on particular props or resources and stay flexible. It’s true that simple is good, and it’s true that sometimes you need to strike while the iron is hot regardless of whether you have your preferred gear to hand or time to warm up. But doing everything you do carelessly, lazily and without thought or effort is simply a recipe for failure If you’ve performed a rite like the one above then it’s dollars to donuts that any result you’re attributing to that working is no more attributable than if you’d done nothing at all.

I meant to do that.

Another pitfall is convincing yourself that a working for X was a rousing success when X has completely failed to materialise. There’s always going to be a fair bit of wiggle-room around any given intent; if you perform a working to obtain money then finding a wallet in the street, getting a promotion at work, or a successful flutter on the gee-gees would all fit the bill. However you will frequently see the most abysmal failures parleyed into resounding successes, with those involved tying themselves into all sorts of knots to explain why the non-materialisation of the stated result was in fact precisely what they’d wanted all along.

A case in point: witness the many, many workings performed in the run-up to the 2000 US presidential elections to prevent Bush from taking the White House. After Dubya had inveigled his way into office despite all our best efforts, various attempts were made to spin our defeat into a victory. Some people pointed out that Georgie-boy had indeed lost the election, and it wasn’t the fault of the mages if the process was so corrupt as to allow him to take office anyway. The second category of wishful thinkers cheerfully stated that this was actually a far better manifestation of what they’d really wanted all along, since Dubya was obviously going to be such a shit prez that not only would he never get back into office a second time, but the entire Republican party would be so destroyed by the imbecile at their helm that they would never get within a hundred miles of the White House in our lifetimes.

We can all see how well that panned out. [Ed’s Note: I think that the second clause of the last sentence will prove to be accurate. – Author’s note: we can but hope and pray!]

I was personally involved in some of those workings and don’t regret the attempt. I’m heartily sorry that we failed to keep Bush out of office, but we failed. Twice. The thing to do in the face of failure is not to try and spin it into success to salve your injured pride, but to perform a thorough post-mortem to find out what your spell died of. Be honest with yourself. (In this case the unfortunate patient appears to have expired from a surfeit of variables; the reader might do well to learn from this and go for a more grass-roots approach.)

This kind of thing is even easier to do in the face of a near miss, or when you get something which is not what you asked for but which seems connected in some way. If you performed a working for a Dukla Prague away kit and ended up with a Subbuteo set instead, that’s definitely an interesting result, but it’s still not a success.

So ask yourself: Did I perform a magical action likely to have brought about this event? This need not mean ritual as such, but at the very least there should have been a sustained and conscious focusing of the mind on a particular intent which has been made manifest. Otherwise you’re simply shoehorning an observed event into a self-aggrandising narrative. (Not that there’s anything wrong with self-aggrandising narratives per se – I’ve been known to enjoy the odd one or two myself, perhaps with my morning coffee or as a digestif after a meal, but moderation should be the watchword here.)

If you can honestly say “yes, I performed a reasonably well structured working with X intent, and X happened,” then you can chalk up a success. Otherwise it’s back to the drawingboard.

Dancing with myself

Fear the Socks

But what of the mystic, the spirit-worker, the God-botherer? Does it really matter if she’s communing with a real live Person of Restricted Embodiment or to the voices in her own head? Obviously, not everyone believes in the literal existence of Gods, spirits, spooks or spectres. From this perspective it could certainly seem that since there is nothing out there to talk to, it doesn’t really matter what aspect of in here you happen to be calling Jesus, Baphomet, or Reginald the Purple Ocelot.

In the absence of any direct experience of Gods qua Gods, this contention is entirely rational and valid. However it should be qualified; it’s more true to state that it doesn’t matter what you’re really talking to as long as the outcomes over time are positive. It could also argue that even working from this position it is still necessary for the effective magician to distinguish between a meaningful interaction the deep mind, and mere ego-jabber.

At best, the God-botherer can set up a little kaffeeklatsch with a few cosy little sockpuppets and never get outside of the shallow end of her own head. This is a recipe for stagnation, stasis; endless self-referential loops of pseudocommunication serving to re-enforce prejudices and deter the occultist away from taking bold or dangerous steps. Why change, why grow, when the sockpuppets love you just the way you are? At worst, those socks can turn on her. She can find herself locked into a downward spiral of negative input and delusion, in which more and more unpleasant experiences push her from the liminal not-quite-sane space that she must inhabit at times to do her work, and into a full-fledged mental breakdown. It’s my belief that the familiar story of the one-time occultist who gets into spirit-contact via ouija-boards and associated tosh and finds herself increasingly at the mercy of inimical “demons” who cause all manner of kerfuffle until the occultist is redeemed by the Power of Christ™ (as manifested through the power of centred text and embedded MIDI), is often a manifestation of this process. Likewise those occultists who suddenly turn around and start denouncing a particular tradition or pantheon as evil and hostile, the preserve of devouring and rapacious entities masquerading as Gods. Certainly many of these people are simply fabricating juicy misery just to get attention. However, it seems equally certain that a large proportion are relating experiences which to them are entirely genuine and genuinely traumatic. It’s just that the authors of these experiences may not be who they say they are.

With a mind open and ready to receive, but lacking any filter to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the God-botherer is at risk of picking up all manner of phantom input. As mentioned before this could be seen as coming from malevolent external sources but the most obvious and likely source is the mystic’s own fears and insecurities. Nobody, no matter how happy and well-adjusted, is entirely free of these and so nobody is immune to this kind of risk. Given voice and personification as the Evil Sockpuppets of Doom, those negative elements slowly get to work on a person’s mind and sense of self. They can masquerade as spirits or Gods, and can be very, very convincing. (I have had some wrenchingly miserable interactions myself – mostly consisting of being branded a washout and getting fired by my pantheon – which have proved on investigation to be my own hangups in wigs and false noses.) The stress resulting from these negative interactions then affects future interactions creating a negative feedback loop, pain feeding upon pain, fear upon fear.

It is not in the purview of this piece to talk in detail about the various ways and means of getting your mystic on or hooking up with persons of restricted embodiment. You’ll have to look elsewhere for help with that. Instead, let’s look at the ways in which this most subjective of experiences can usefully be evaluated.

There are many kinds of experience that could be described as mystical, ranging from experiences that involve little or no direct contact with the spirit or Deity to full-on voices in the head contact, to overshadowings, to outright amnesic possession. In any case, the most meaningful index of effectiveness is to consider your own life and see how your particular Deity or spirit’s mysteries are manifesting there.

How are your fortunes? How are you? Are you wealthy in those things that your chosen God deals in? If you’re attempting to establish good relations with a God of Wealth and have spent the last year lurching from financial crisis to hideous financial crisis, losing jobs and wallets and getting ripped off, you may wish to re-evaluate your practice. If your practice involves daily devotions to the Goddess Venus, yet you have few or no close female friends, cannot maintain loving relationships and are given to using sexual slurs or “your mum” insults when you can’t think of a rational argument, then you’re doing something wrong. If you are striving for a closer connection to the nice invisible lady who’s surfed on in on the back of your Reiki 1 attunement and yet you are constantly down with flu and killing your pot-plants, you may have a problem somewhere. There are various things that could have gone wrong. Perhaps you aren’t showing sufficient devotion in the obvious sense: making time for your Gods, giving appropriate gifts, performing appropriate devotions. What offerings do you make, and what steps have you taken to ensure that these were appropriate – did you look into the lore surrounding Their recorded likes and dislikes? Have you consulted with other long-term worshippers as to what went over well and what got them in trouble?

Be aware that all the incense, prayer and spirit-food in the world will avail you little if in your day-to-day life you transgress against the God you’re trying to get on your side. If you want good things from a God who’s associated with protection and defence, you should strive to protect and defend in your turn instead of attacking those weaker than you. If you’re hitting up a Goddess of Love to help you out with your relationship problems and yet are behaving in a cold and unloving way yourself, you’re not going to get very far. When I’m having problems with a particular Deity, it’s frequently because I’m having problems integrating His or Her mysteries into my own life.

It’s also entirely possible that problematic experiences may be a sign that things are going right. Some entities will provoke strife and difficulty in your life as an expression of Their natures. Take Odin, for example; He can certainly be approached as a God of wisdom and magic, or a God of love, or a God of wealth; He is all those things. But He’s also a God of madness and battle, and it’s quite impossible to order up a dish of Runic Mastery without getting a side order of Physical Conflict or Batshit Insane. Be aware of the Deity’s nature before you get involved.

Evaluating contact with Deities

From safety to where?

One common error is to undertake a simple guided meditation and confuse a facsimile of a God or spirit with the real deal. An alarming number of people do this. The trouble is that you can have a detailed, realistic and convincing experience of leaving your body and meeting something that looks very much like a God; and yet never get outside of the shallow end of your own head or encounter anything other than one of your own sockpuppets. It’s like paddling around in the kiddy pool and thinking you’ve swum the Channel. So how do you suss out whether you’ve had a meaningful interaction or not?

The first and best question to ask here is the following: was the nature of the interaction in character for what you know of the Deity? Did She behave as you would expect Her to behave? Did She exude the kind of power you might associate with a Divine being? If Kali took time out of Her busy schedual to sit you down with a nice cup of hot cocoa and tell you how you were right to dump that guy, he was plainly a wrong’un, you are a strong and beautiful woman in your own right and should celebrate by going out and buying that pair of strappy red pumps and getting your nails done, you do rather have to face the possibility that it might not have actually been Kali after all.

The second question is: What was the experience like in terms of richness and sensory depth? A guided meditation will feel this and flat, and will probably be missing sensory data – perhaps the visual will be clear, but there’ll be little smell or taste, muted touch and possibly no sound. A real faring-forth will feel – well, real. Rain will be wet. Snow will be cold. Spring flowers will smell sweet. Horseshit will stink. Walking will tire you out, a warm bath will be pleasurable and a fight will hurt. There will also be this indefinable sense of being… elsewhere. Sometimes there are other signs that yes, Virginia, you have been out of your head. I’ve brought injuries back with me into meatspace; actual verifiable physical changes have occurred. Conversely I’ve had meatspace damage fixed up Out There.

And finally: was there a big fight which you won? This is one of those narratives which crops up continually wherever occultists get together to trade stories and compare tattoos. The usual storyline goes like this: “I astrally projected into [insert divine realm], where I met [insert Deity], who demanded [insert goods and/or services – bonus points if it was something reprehensibly evil or if $Deity demanded sex] from me. Naturally I refused, so [insert Deity] tried to intimidate me and we began fighting. It was a terrible battle, but I adopted my [insert power animal] form and easily defeated Her/Them.” An extra pat on the head for multiple Deities, with the special prize going to those who have raped and/or killed the God. You are a very scary little Darque Magyckian and we’re all terribly impressed.

If this is you, then you, chum, have never got out of the kiddy pool. Try not to piss in it if the Big Kids ever do turn up in your life. (PS: no, you didn’t suckerpunch Heimdall and invade Asgard either. Try again.)

Here come the spiders

The flipside of this last is the crashingly painful, traumatic and damaging experience at the hands of beings generally regarded as loving and positive. This is no joke. The experience can be a shattering one. It is necessary therefore not to dismiss it as “not real.” The pain is real. When something like this occurs, it’s common for the magician to feel utterly betrayed. She may come to believe that the entities she was working with have been concealing their “true nature,” which she’s now discovered to her cost; she may come to believe that the pantheon or family of spirits are secretly demons or aliens, cruel, inimical and dangerous.

The thing to do in this case is not to trivialise or minimise the experience itself, but to consider whether the entities involved were who the magician thought They were. If millions of people worship a family of spirits and think of them as loving and positive, see them enriching their lives, look to them for aid and succour at difficult times, then it would seem unlikely that all those people are simply deluded and foolish, the wool pulled over their eyes down the centuries by beings who for some reason are only too pleased to reveal Their real and evil natures to the magician.

It’s very important to think about the circumstances that helped to produce the negative experience. There is one very important question that needs asking after such a disaster, a question that is often skirted around or avoided, and it is this: “Did you take a fuckload of drugs?”

Taking a fuckload of drugs is an authentic shamanic practice with a great and noble pedigree. From amanita muscara distilled via a reindeer’s urinary tract in the icy lands of Northern Europe, to ayahausca in the jungles of Brazil, across all races, nations and periods of history, people have been taking a fuckload of drugs in order to get up close and personal with their Gods. There’s nothing wrong or bad about taking of fuckloads of drugs as a spiritual practice. However, it’s impossible to ignore that outwith the supporting structures provided by the magico-religious practices that tend to grow up around our plant allies, the taking of a fuckload of drugs does seem to predispose one to go off the deep end a bit and start raving about how Pantheon X are really terrible Insect Demons that live beyond the Veil. Whether or not the Terrible Insect Demons are really really real or not is a moot point. What’s important to keep in mind is that they are unlikely to be the True Forms of Pantheon X which only you, the wise and perceptive psychonaut, have been able to uncover. Oh, and perhaps a few of your cooler mates who may also (purely coincidentally) be given to the taking of fuckloads of drugs. Please note that sleep-deprivation, fasting, exercising to collapse and grave emotional stress are all basically the same as taking drugs. Use with respect.

Also important are the life circumstances under which the experience has occurred. If you’re experiencing major upheaval – change of job, moving house, getting divorced, getting married – it’s often wise to ramp down your practice if possible so as to allow yourself to catch up with events in meatspace. This is important even if you’re not aware of feeling stressed. Stress can creep up on you; it’s like a poison gas, each worsening increment barely detectable until it’s gone… or until the crash comes. If your heart is breaking and your mind is under intolerable pressure, it’s not such a surprise that the emotional damage can manifest as a negative experience of the being kicked around by Terrible Insect Demons kind.

Finally, I’d like to remind everyone once again that a painful or otherwise difficult experience Out There is not necessarily evidence that a God or spirit is evil and out to get you. Just as a God of Love may lavish love upon you and a God of Healing may cure your ills, if you journey out to meet a God of War you shouldn’t be too surprised if She should choose to sock you one in the face or hack off a limb or two. Don’t like the idea? Stay at home.

“You come to my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder… ”

A word here seems necessary on the subject of human/Deity relationships in general. One thing I cannot stress enough, and which gets overlooked by a lot of magicians writing and practising today, is that the Gods and spirits are not there simply for your convenience. They are not king-sized Montessori school teachers whose job it is to hold your hand and coax you gently through your education. They are vast and old and potentially dangerous. You do not get to turn up on the God’s doorstep and demand to be taken care of.

In my experience it sometimes doesn’t matter very much if you believe in the literal, objective existence of the Deity or not. You might have decided that you’re working with archetypes or “godforms,” but They may well choose to come out and be real at you anyway. They’re older than you, and have had considerably more practice in being real than you have had in not believing in Them. The effect that Deity work of various kinds can have on your life is certainly very real. It is important therefore to get your attitude on straight before you get into the relationship.

Although there are people who find that their Gods have selected them rather than the other way around – indeed, many would suggest that the best way to begin a relationship with a Deity is to let Her come to you – by and large, you are the one who got yourself into this. You knocked on the door. You made the first move. It is vanishingly unlikely that the Deity forced you into anything. It ill behoves you, therefore, to act like a git. This is not a good place to work out your issues with authority. You wouldn’t take up a martial art and then kick up rough because the Sensei put you on the mat a couple of times, you wouldn’t enrol on a bricklaying course and then complain because they made you get your hands dirty, you wouldn’t go to catering college and sulk because they made you cook, so don’t import your Sticking It To The Man daydreams into this, either. If you have a pressing need to re-enact your cherished fantasy of putting Fatty Johnson from the Upper Sixth in his place or telling Mr. “Muppet-Mouth” Stebbins what you really thought of his moustache back in GCSE Physics, go and buy a copy of The Sims. Or better yet – grow up, get over it, and move on. Playtime’s fucking over.

A Smaller God

If all of the above seems a trifle intimidating – good, it was supposed to. Now let’s look at evaluating communications with other classes of spirits.

From an animistic perspective, the world is lousy with spirits. They live in the land, in the rocks, in the forests; they live in the city, making their homes in junction-boxes and ATMs. Spirits of tree and traffic-light, of cave and bus-station. Perhaps your spirit-guide hovers at your shoulder. The Dead dwell in the boneyards; your ancestors lie in the worlds beyond, dreaming of the day when you remember them. They are all out there, waiting for you to find them. Again, it’s outside the scope of this piece to get into how you make contact. Half the time the buggers just seem to turn up and start chewing your ear off of their own accord, anyway, spooky little perverts. We’re going to assume for the sake of brevity that you’ve already accomplished contact of some form or another and that all parties are getting along well enough that they would like to continue and deepen the relationship. In a nutshell: pay attention. Keep an eye out for messages from the spirits. They speak in many voices. Through club-flyers, through half-heard conversations on the bus, through car stereos, ringtones, tunes whistled and sung. They speak through items left in the trash, dumped on the kebside, hung over roadsigns. They talk through graffiti?the denizens of the spirit-world are prolific taggers. If you can find time to learn the runes, you’ll find these useful. Runes are everywhere in the city.

The same mechanism goes for land- and city-spirits as goes for Gods, in a lot of ways. If things are going good, you’ll see that reflected in your day-to-day life. You’ll have more luck overall; good things will come to you while the random hassle of your life will be replaced with the kind of meaningful, worthwhile strife that you can profit from. If things are going badly, there will be… bother. The freak accident that totals your car, random encounters with people who want to steal your shit or alter your looks, waiting hours for the bus and then three coming all at once. All of the seeds on your allotment getting eaten by birds. The cat getting into the cupboard and weeing in your hydroponics. Shenanigans. Grief. You get a feel for it after a while. It’s really something you can only learn from experience.

“Are you of the Light?”

Even if you do the voices-in-the-head thing or utilise other methods of communication, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on what’s really happening in your life. As with the Big Gods, results are a surer index of your success and wellbeing than what the headvoices may or may not be telling you. Remember our ouija-jockey from a few pages ago? I have come across account after account of people who make contact with somebody-something claiming to be their spirit-guides, forming a rapport, doing everything the little voices in their head says no matter how irrational, and eventually deciding that they’re dealing with demons when the obvious occurs and their lives go belly-up. And when you look at what safeguards they were using to make sure they didn’t end up doing something stupid, it’s always something like “Oh I was really careful?I asked every single spirit ‘are you of the Light?’”

There are so many things wrong with “are you of the Light?” and its various and several clones that one hardly knows where to begin, so let’s just pick a tentacle at random and start hacking.

We are back once again to the old problem of whether we’re dealing with an external force or an internal aspect of the magician’s own mind that’s acting as if it were independent. The vast majority of people who report spirit-contact in the English-speaking world would appear to fall into the latter category. They are very clearly speaking to figments of their own imaginations – things from out of the shallow end of the mind, only a whisker below conscious thought. Entertaining, possibly even productive if approached within their natural limits, but not the repository of wisdom and self-discovery that the deep mind can be, and certainly not coming in with anything fresh from outside. Asking something that you’ve created yourself “are you one of the good guys or one of the bad guys?” is an exercise in futility. People who believe in their hearts that they are deserving of love, affirmation and support will hear messages of love, affirmation and support; people who have been convinced that they are bad and worthless will recieve an undermining dirge of despite and loathing. It need hardly be remarked that a lot of what the former give themselves so abundantly should often go to the latter by rights (and vice versa). If you’ve made contact with the real deal, an actual spirit, “are you nice or nasty?” is still a silly question. There’s no cosmic Geneva Convention that all spirits must abide by. These things can lie, and the dodgier they are, the more likely they are to do so.

Either way, you need to take a rational approach to what you’re being told by your spirits, and you need to keep an eye on the direction your life is going. It might sound obvious but there are people so trusting that they will do whatever the spirits tell them, unquestioningly, often on very brief aquaintance. Say your spirit tells you to drop a couple of quid on a scratchcard – well, why not? It’s only a couple of quid. If on the other hand your spirit tells you to quit your job and move across country you need to evaluate that rather differently. If you’re asked to do something drastic, get ample confirmation first. Talk to your friends, talk to the people you trust most to give you a realistic assessment of what’s going on; consult your preferred means of divination; take a long hard look at the situation and your own desires and motivations. For even if you are lucky enough to have a hotline to someone powerful, foresighted and genuinely loving, are you so sure of the perfect clarity of your own connection? We’re all prone to interference, the little voices of wishful thinking, fear, self-loathing, a thousand anxieties, dependencies, fetishes and hangups, all ready to cut in and mislead at any moment. Only time and experience can teach you the difference, and you will never become infallible.

And finally…

If I had to sum up my own approach to evaluating my practice in a single phrase, that phrase would be “what if this was all a load of bollocks?” What if I were to wake up and realise that the whole thing, the full spectrum of my magical and spiritual experience, was a delusion? Would I still be reasonably happy about the resources expended in light of the overall impact on my life, my character, the way I relate to the world? If you cannot look at your progress and say “I am stronger, wiser, more loving, and overall a more effective person than I was when I got into this shit,” then you need sort it out or chuck it out. If you can, then have at it and good luck to you. It’s really that simple.