Know Thyself (Living Magically)
To live magically we need to know something about ourselves. But really knowing thyself is probably the most difficult challenge we all face. The following quote from Pete Jennings, a former president of the Pagan Federation, alludes to how essential is the acquisition of self-knowledge:
“Because of the nature of Paganism, people drawn to it tend in general to be strong individuals, capable of thinking for themselves and expressing their opinions; it attracts people who by nature challenge authority…our path is too hard and demanding for the casual follower. It does not suit those who want everything to be carefully thought out on their behalf, and presented in easily digestible chunks. It is the province of independent, intelligent free-thinkers, with a love of the natural world and a self-motivated desire for spiritual and personal growth”.
There are many religious systems that will tell you what to think and what to believe. They might, or might not, however, place much focus on self-knowledge. Some religions will promise you eternal life in paradise, so long as you simply play by the rules laid down for you. Some religious systems also cater to the ego by encouraging their followers to feel special or elitist, which is basically a sort of spiritual narcissism.
But if you have chosen to follow a modern pagan path, then, hopefully, you are up to being challenged. Esoteric spirituality has always emphasised how essential it is to “know thyself”. The reason for that is because, like most things in the Natural World, such as a river or a tree, we tend to prefer the course of least resistance. Our ego will see to that. But taking the course of least resistance might be fine for a river, but experience has shown that when humans apply the same principle, they very often come unstuck. Think of criminals, alcoholics, or drug addicts, for example – those sorts of individuals tend always to take the course of least resistance.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that some individuals nowadays are drawn to magic to help them face the challenges of life. Working magic does seem an attractive strategy, hopefully producing results without too much effort. Unfortunately, a lot of disinformation and superstitious nonsense is generated around the issue of magic, a great deal of it by those who want to sell spell casting books to wanabee witches. Aleister Crowley, if he were around today, would undoubtedly agree, as reflected in his view that “magic attracts too many dilletantes, seeking in magic an escape from reality”. Crowley may have been a flawed individual in many ways, but his approach to magical practise was based on common sense and pragmatism, rather than wishful thinking. To understand a little more about living magically, it is worth considering a few of Crowley’s ideas.
Crowley felt he was on a quest, which he wanted to put a name to. During his time at Cambridge he referred to his quest as the Great Work because he thought that terms like “occultism” or “mysticism” had undesirable connotations. Finally, he settled on the term “Magick”, adding the letter “k” to the end of the word to distinguish it from stage magic. Nowadays sceptics tend to deride the spelling as pretentious nonsense. Crowley’s Magic, however, had one important feature in common with stage magic; both forms of magic require hard work, planning and skill. They focus on pragmatism.
For example, Crowley maintained that pen, ink and paper are magical weapons, and that sentences are incantations. Publishers, printers and booksellers he described as “spirits”, although he did place the word spirits in inverted commas. But what Crowley was getting at, is that printed words have a mysterious power to change the way people think, which is a form of Magic – and also, as any serious writer will tell you, even inspired writing can be very hard work; no pain, no gain. Crowley also emphasised that Magic can only operate within the Laws of Nature; that you can’t turn men into mushrooms, as he put it. No amount of wand waving within magic circles will cause Nature to suspend its laws on the behalf of a magician. Terry Pratchett expresses this fact in one of his books where Granny Weatherwax admits that she can’t turn a man into a frog – but she can certainly make him think that he’s a frog.
A central feature of Crowley’s ideas is that failure in life is the result of being ignorant of one’s True Will. For example, he says that a man might fancy himself a painter and waste his life trying to become one. In other words, if the man deludes himself and considers himself a talented artist when he is not, then he is not following his True Will, but his ego-driven will. The man will surely fail. As Crowley says: “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, pointing out that a man can only attract and employ the forces for which he is really fitted. On the other hand, Crowley points out that if the man has in fact real talent but fails to handle the difficulties and practicalities of a professional art career, he will also fail. Again, we see how important is pragmatism to real magic. Crowley also took the view that the Universe will assist those who follow their own true Will, as reflected in another of his quotes: “Every man has a right to fulfil his own will without being afraid that it may interfere with that of others; for if he is in his proper place, it is the fault of others if they interfere with him”.
Some mistakenly assume from this that Crowley was promoting a ruthless attitude, such as that found amongst criminals. But Crowley said that criminals are, in fact, at odds with their own True Wills because the criminal mind is unable to perceive the bigger picture. Confirming what a pragmatic fellow he really was, Crowley pointed out that criminal actions simply have undesirable consequences for the offender in the form of legal repercussions. Curiously, Crowley doesn’t focus on ethical or moral reasons, or the Law of Karma, as reasons to avoid being criminal. But perhaps Crowley was just being Crowley on that one. Clearly it is very difficult to Know Thyself, which is why some have taken a different view. Oscar Wilde thought it more important to “Be Thyself”, an attitude that might result in narcissistic, self-destructive behaviour. For instance, how many times do we hear the excuse: “It’s the way I am – get over it”?
Another of Crowley’s most well-known phrases is: “Every man and every woman, is a star”, which is often widely misunderstood in the Hollywood sense of a star. But Crowley was drawing an analogy between a heavenly star, which appears to move across the sky following a pre-determined course, and the course of life that every person has to take. For example, Crowley gives an example of a woman who can only be happy if she marries for love. If, however, she sacrifices that need and marries instead for wealth and security, then she will never be entirely happy or fulfilled. A different sort of woman, however, might remain unmarried through deliberate choice, in which case she will be happy because she is following her True Will.
In her book “The Secret of the Shadow”, Debbie Ford, a New Age writer, cites a similar example; the case of a young woman who always had ambitions to become an actress. When she was still at school, her teachers said that she had a gift for self-expression and encouraged her to take up an acting career. The young woman’s mother, however, wanted her to go to college instead and take up a more responsible career. One day, the young woman’s mother told her about an audition for a play. But by this time the woman’s resentment against her mother’s early influence on her erupted into self-pity, and to spite her mother she refused the audition and turned her back on a chance at an acting career. The young woman decided never to act again – and for the rest of her life she blamed her mother.
The greatest challenge, here, of course, is how to recognise and act in accordance with one’s True Will. According to Crowley, if one is obeying one’s True Will, then the inertia of the Universe will assist in realising it. A problem only arises when one is ignorant of one’s natural powers, which will result in self-imposed limitations. A person can fall victim to such limitations if life experiences, for instance, have negatively conditioned that person, in which case the person is fighting the Universe rather than flowing with it. One of Crowley’s definitions is that “Magick is the science of understanding oneself and one’s condition”. He also emphasised the importance of living magically all the time: 24/7, as they say today. You have to constantly think within a magical context because our thoughts ultimately affect our actions, though it may not be evident at the time.
Again, the American writer Debbie Ford said: “Each of us comes into this world with a particular mission, as if a recipe for our highest fulfilment were written within our souls. This recipe is different for each of us; there are no two recipes that are exactly the same”. This observation is not that far removed from Crowley’s focus on the True Will.
Debbie Ford takes the view that we manufacture stories about our lives, which we are constantly retelling to ourselves. Unfortunately, these stories are usually false and don’t actually define who we truly are. The bottom line is that we end up living in these stories, which result in self-defeating habits, resentments, traumas, and abusive behaviour. However, Debbie Ford’s focus is more on the Shadow, drawn from the theories of Carl Jung.
“The Shadow part of us is where all our fears, hang-ups, and distorted views of how unworthy we are, reside. Because we tend to repress the traits that we feel are socially unacceptable and offensive to others, we force them deep into our psyche where we try to suppress them. But because they are being held under pressure these shadowy parts of us are constantly seeking an outlet, which they frequently tend to achieve in highly negative ways. The idea is to recognise our Shadow, embrace everything in our past that has caused us pain by taking the lid off the cellar and letting some light in”.
There is a fine line between self-knowledge and self-obsession. Learning to “Know Thyself” is not about naval gazing, which can lead down the slippery road to spiritual narcissism. Spiritual narcissism can range from annoying expressions of self-righteousness and virtue-signalling, to the most grandiose delusions of grandeur displayed by self-styled prophets. A former USA presidential candidate, for example, once sought to win votes by declaring that he always starts his days on his knees. Such piety might have impressed the Christian voters, but others took a more ominous view. What they in fact heard, was: “God told me this morning to carpet bomb Russia”. Knowing thyself is not easy. It is a lifelong quest.