Archive for May 2013

The Four Powers: Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

This is the second in a series of posts about magic.  The first looked at two kinds of knowledge, one of which we often discount in a world where knowledge of a thing counts for more:  “Just the facts, ma’am.  Just the facts.”  Other kinds of knowing exist beyond these two, but we build on these.

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In the past, for almost anyone who sought out magical training, a teacher offered the surest guidance.  Few people were literate, so other than learning through trial and error, a guide or mentor was immensely useful.  Little was committed to writing anyway — too risky, impractical, wasteful of materials for a minuscule readership — pointless really.  Shaman, witch, hoodoo man or woman, conjurer, curandera, priestess, mystic, sorcerer, mage, wizard, druid — a panoply of names to call what a seeker might be looking for.

magicbookNowadays, as an aspiring mage, I can locate and open a beginning magic textbook — one that actually sets out a course of training for new magicians, as opposed to one that assuages the ego by offering vague reassurances and “instant magic.” When I do, I run head-long into the hidden first lesson:  my undisciplined attention needs training and focus. But I skim the chapter, or look ahead at one that seems to promise more.  Soon the first excitement of a promising title or author — or, gods help us, a flashy cover with a robed figure — begins to wane.  I want The Big Secret; instead, the first chapter sets me to doing a couple of modest-seeming exercises I am to practice for a month and record the results.  Too much like work.  Where are the glowing runes and mysterious passwords to infinite realms of gold and shadow and silver?  Where are the guardians with amethyst crowns and rings of adamant?  I want the symphony, and this book has me practicing scales.

More than anything else it does, magic even half-practiced bring me face to face with myself.  “Gnothi seauton,” said Socrates. “Know yourself.”  We aren’t altogether what we think we are — both more and less, we discover the prime tool of magic: the self.  All other powers pale in comparison to what we already are, what we bring right now to the art of magic.  We are marvelous beings, with dimensions, capacities and talents unexplored.  Discovering the truth of this firsthand ideally will not puff up the ego, but engage the curiosity, another tool the mage never stops using.  I will need that curiosity to help me through the first month.  By the end of the first week or so, if I’ve actually stuck with the exercises that long, the first aura of wonder has dimmed.  But in its place, a glimmer, usually no more, of things I didn’t know I knew, of aspects of consciousness, of a window opening where before there was only a wall, of passage through, where before was only cul-de-sac.  It’s faint, that sense of expansion, and if I don’t write it down, it dwindles to nothing.  Gone.  Easy to forget, easy to minimize, discount, ignore altogether.  Hence the advice to record it.  The hard evidence of pages of experience accumulates into a consistent realm of action and reaction and consequence that the mind cannot so easily argue away any longer.  A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I need to unify my forces if I am to accomplish anything worth doing.

doglisteningThe first lessons of magic use and highlight abilities we possess in the service of clarifying the task ahead.  Knowledge, memory, discipline, attention, imagination.  And persistence.  I discover both more — and less — than I’d hoped for.  I learn what a slippery, supple and potent thing consciousness is.  I learn in spite of myself and in spite of the biases of many current cultures that consciousness isn’t all I am, and it may not even be the most valuable or striking aspect of my identity.  Or rather I learn that day-to-day consciousness is to the full spectrum of possible consciousness what the visible wavelengths of light are to the full electromagnetic spectrum — a small slice out of an enormous bandwidth.  I learn that other beings may prefer and reside in other portions of the spectrum, the way insects can see ultraviolet and infrared beyond the human range, the way dogs hear pitches of sound and smell an olfactory melange  we never register, the way countless worlds are stuffed with possibilities we never notice at all.

Some knowing is remembering, is recollection.  Where did I encounter this before? And who was with me when I did?

Read about any of this too soon, however, and instead of learning it, I’m convinced I already “know” it.  Next cool thing, please, says the mind.  Next one.  As if magic, somehow different from eating or love-making or listening to music, were a matter of hurrying to the end, rather than practicing the delight of being present in the moment, noticing all we can, taking it in, marveling.

So I begin to know differently, more broadly.  Go slow, says the Master.  What’s the rush?

castaneda1962Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman or brujo made famous in Carlos Castaneda‘s controversial book series*, remarks of the magical journey, “For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.”

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*Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968; 1998 (30th edition).

images:  book; dog; Castaneda.

Updated 8 May 2013

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The Four Powers–Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 1   4 comments

[Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

This is the first of a series on the powers of magic.

heaney“All I know is a door into the dark,” says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.”  In some way that’s where we all begin.  At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even.  The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming.  We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once.  We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds.  Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves?  Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?

Much of our knowing is experiential during those years.  We learn about the physical laws of our planet, the bumps and bruises and sometimes breaks of childhood a testament to the hard edges of this world.  We learn some of its softnesses too: favorite foods, the touch of loved ones, the warm fur of pets, a dog’s nose meeting ours, the new air on the skin that spring and summer bring, the delight of rain and puddles and baths and fresh-laundered clothes.

child-at-shoreThen in some parts of the world comes another learning, one that typically fills much of our days for the next decade or so:  a knowing about, the accumulation in school of facts and statistics and words and ideas, math and languages and art,  science and history.  Still some experiential learning comes through as a matter of course — Bunsen burners glowing, magnesium and potassium in chemistry doing their flaming and bubbling tricks mixed with other elements.  The practice of basketball, baseball, volleyball, football and soccer, the sprints and catches and throws and spins and tricks, the correct forms and personal styles.  Wrestling, dance, music, track and field, teaching the body to know beyond thought, to form and shape habits useful precisely when they become habit and no longer demand our full attention.

And other knowledge of the body, too:  the awakening of sexuality, the chemical prods and prompts of hormones to stir the body into further change, the powers of attraction and desire, the experimentation with consciousness-altering that seems a universally human practice, whether “naturally” through exercise and pushing one’s physical limits, through chant, prayer, meditation, dance, song, music, or through “assisted alteration” with certain herbs, drugs, alcohol.  Even into adulthood much of this knowledge rumbles and whispers just below the level of conscious thought much of the time.  Without socially-approved times and places to discuss many of these experiences, we withhold them from daily conversation, we “fit in” and accommodate, we commit to being just like everyone around us, and the nudge of what feels like difference becomes part of the background hum of living, an itch we scratch haphazardly, or learn to tune out.

We forget how valuable this kind of knowing is, how it persists throughout our lives.  This used to be wisdom of a kind we valued precisely because it took lived experience to acquire.   You couldn’t rush it, couldn’t buy it or fake it, at least not without so much practice you almost recreated for yourself the original source experience anyway.

In a previous post on this blog, I noted:

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” – you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.

Back to the poem I mentioned in the first line of this post.  Reading it can be, in a small way, a re-initiation back into some experiences and kinds of knowing we may have forgotten or waylaid.  It’s “just words,” but also — potentially — more.

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

forgeHere’s one opportunity of our human life (there are others) — a door into darkness, a world inside us that is a forge, a place of shaping and molding, of hammering material into a desired form, a place of work and energy and transformation.  The door leads to a place where we can find an altar, where we can “expend ourselves in shape and music” and “beat real iron out.”  Sometimes it appears others stand there before us; at times, we stand alone, tools scattered about, not always sure of how to proceed, dimly aware, or not at all, of anything like an altar or metal or tools.  But here lies a chance at the magnum opus, the “great work” many of us seek, that task finally worthy of all that we are and can do and dream of, a labor that is pleasure and work and art, all at once or at different times.

Even to know this in some small way, to imagine it or suspect it, is a start.  The door into the dark may not stand open, but we discern the outlines of something like a door, and maybe grope towards a handle, a yielding to an inner call, something that answers to a hand on the doorknob, or shifts like a latch, clicks open.  To know this much is a priceless beginning.

How magic can build on this beginning, and assist in self-making, will be the subject of the next post.

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Images: Seamus Heaney; child at shore; forge.

Updated 3 July 2014

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