My friend Meme posed a series of questions in response to my last post. They are hard questions and the answers are long and probably raise many more questions of their own. Be forewarned. This was written as a direct response to Meme (he’s the “you” below) but anyone who would like is welcome to jump right in. I’d love to hear anyone else’s answers to these.

If you are interested in magic as a subject, there’s a whole range of places to go to get different answers and different ideas. Some of them may contradict me, and that doesn’t make either of us wrong. The post started life as part of an email discussion, when one person offered a description of magic as she does it that was completely different from magic as I do it. She is an intelligent and thoughtful writer for whom I have a lot of respect and I was struck by how two people can engage with magic sincerely and earnestly, probably even working from similar sources, and come out with such different results. She is not wrong, nor am I; we’re just different. If you also engage with this work, you might also come to a completely different place. 

I should also say that I’m not totally comfortable answering some of these because once you start putting things into writing it starts the process of being boiled down, so the reader gets the boiled-down bit, processes it even further, and winds up with this little nub and says “Aha! This nub is really what you mean, right?” and usually it’s not. What I really mean is a whole lot more than what I’m saying, not any less. I tried to answer as thoroughly and well as I can, but some of these are conceptually complicated and all I can do is give it my best shot. I ran my first draft past our friend Wren (thanks, Wren!) to make sure I was actually making sense and to get some feedback from another perspective. Some of her comments are included below. Meme’s questions are in italics

Do you believe in chance? Does the fundamental nature of the universe include chaos and randomness?

The fundamental nature of the universe IS chaos, if my sources are to be believed. I looked “randomness” up on wikipedia to get a better handle on the concept and was intrigued by this bit: “Randomness is an objective property. Nevertheless, what appears random to one observer may not appear random to another observer. Consider two observers of a sequence of bits, only one of whom has the cryptographic key needed to turn the sequence of bits into a readable message. The message is not random, but is unpredictable for one of the observers.” Random processes are often used for divination. The reader as the key and decodes a message received by a randomization process based on the key. I think all of these things – unpredictability, chaos, and random processes – are fundamental to the structure of the universe, which is one of the reasons that we can use them as vehicles of exploration, as in divination or magic.

If so, how do you distinguish between answers to “prayer” and random occurrences?

 I don’t think “answers to prayers” are the same thing as what I’m talking about, but for the purposes of the question I’ll go along with what I assume you mean here. Even with that, I’m still having a hard time answering this question because I think “random occurrences” here means “stuff that just happens,” and anything that comes along in life is stuff that just happens. I think you’re asking about assigning meaning to events, and how we decide whether an event is meaningful in the context of all the other events that happen. Going back to what I just said about coming up with the cipher key beforehand, magic might be a means of creating meaning in the same kind of way that divination creates meaning. This is something that only occurred to me as a response to this question and not something I’ve thought very hard about, so I’ll have to come back to it sometime. It’s something to ponder, anyway. Shorter answer to the question: I don’t know that I do. I’m not sure it’s necessary. 

What, if anything, makes your version of magick different than a christian who prays to god? Is it only a difference in who you’re supplicating? Would you say that Christians everywhere are practicing magick then?

I’m not qualified to answer this question – I am not and have never been a Christian, so I don’t have the experience I would need to know what the difference is and whether there is any significant difference. I suspect that there is, but I just don’t know and don’t feel comfortable speculating. Not my area. I ran this by Wren, who has been a Christian, and she says:

“As a previous Christian, but arguably a strange one, I think it’s different in these ways: The person you’re asking help from is SO MUCH GREATER than you, you small peon, that it changes the flavor of the conversation. With the spirits, I get the feeling that you’re hanging out with someone who knows more than you do, someone you should be respectful of, but not someone who you must grovel for. Also, when talking to the Gods, I get the feeling that we appreciate our own wee bit of godhead and treat with them differently. I’m not scared of my God, she’s not illogical and capricious in a bad way, and I can talk to her, you know?”

After reading this, it occurred to me that a really fundamental difference between Christianity and this sort of practice is that you’re not appealing to an omniscient, omnipotent being. Heck, with fairies, sometimes they’re not even all that bright (though I should add that I know Christians who work with faery, so the two still aren’t mutually exclusive). My personal cosmology doesn’t contain a supreme being – there might be one out there, but I’ve never encountered such a thing unless you want to equate “the entirety of the universe” with an entity. It’s not anything I feel like I could work into my personal practice. It doesn’t fit – it’s too big.

 If magick consists of praying or asking for intercession, why then all the other trappings? Why the ceremonies and meetings and dress and altars? Is it to put you in a state of mind to ask properly? Is it to put the intercessionary being in the proper mood? If so, why do you think you need to approach your higher power in a certain mindset or vice versa?

I am not sure that it is the same as prayer – as I said, it’s all about the relationship. But maybe that’s what prayer is about for some – in my practice, “prayer” has to do with deities. You don’t pray to a fairy. They aren’t gods. I think people use the ceremonies and such for different reasons, so take this as my idiosyncratic answer, because I can only speak for myself. It’s also a short answer to a question that needs a long answer, and so will be inadequate and kind of vague. Daily practice makes space for the gods in my life – meditation is practice for being able to hear them – you can’t hear anything if you don’t shut up and listen, and my meditation practice is all about shutting up and listening. Other practices – drawing and circulating energy, which is mostly what is going on with all the gesturing and wand-waving and robes and such – is for getting attuned with the subtle energies of the self and the environment. Building altars and making offerings demonstrates commitment and affection for the gods and the fairies (plus altars are handy places to keep things that you want kept apart from Just Stuff. And they’re pretty, which counts for a lot.)

All of these things, I do for their own sake – because I love the gods, I love the fairies, and I just think it’s all wonderful and would do it even if they never did me any other favors than be present in my life. But, sometimes, now and then, there’s something I want. Sometimes, there’s something they want. If they ask, I give as I can – if I ask, they give as they can. This is the sort of thing that ends up looking like magic. I think “mindset” as you say is important because as I’ve said here before, the imagination is an organ of perception and you need the eye of the imagination to be wide open to see some of these things, and that takes practice. You can’t just leave that eye open all the time or you’d lose the ability to be functional in the material world – maybe that’s worth it for some people but mostly it doesn’t seem to work out and it’s not what I want for myself. I think many of the practices that have been developed over time have those two functions – learning how to See, and also how to Unsee, as it were. When I actually need something, I don’t bust out the robes and wands and incense and such – if I haven’t already done that work, it’s too late to start by then. I just quietly go to my contacts (or run screaming to them, depending on what’s going on) and say, how can I get this thing done?

 In your experience and estimation: Can magick produce any reproducible result? Is there any working or spell or prayer that always results in the same effect?

 No. I mean, I know that if I do certain practices, certain things will happen, but that’s all going on in an internal way. I can’t do tricks. I think if the results were reproducible, that would be called “science” not magic. This is also where my skepticism kicks in, as noted in the comments to the last post. If someone can, say, make a ball levitate in midair and do it every single time, I’m going to be looking around for the strings or wires. That’s not magic, it’s a trick, and if there are no strings or other such tricks happening, it’s still not magic, it’s just a physical process that we don’t understand yet.

If the answer to 4 is no, then how do you personally determine whether something happening was caused by Magickal intervention or pure chance? I’m sure you are familiar with experiments on human pattern matching. Why do you think what you experience is magick and not chance or luck that anyone could have? Why do you think that some people get what they desire/need/want without prayer or intercession?

I can’t, I don’t, and I’m not sure there is a difference. I don’t know why some people are born into wealth and comfort and some are born into suffering and poverty. These questions are way above my pay grade, as our president would say, and I would be uncomfortable with any firm answers. I don’t know if the thing that I asked for would have happened if I didn’t ask for it – there’s no parallel universe available to me where I could go and see how it would have worked out otherwise. There’s no control experiment running. That information is unavailable to me and I would have no idea how to go about getting it. I just do the best with what I have. I am aware of things like pattern matching and confirmation bias and all that, but I’m not sure how my life would be improved by chalking a portion of my perceptions up to the cognitive equivalent of an optical illusion and walking away from them. I guess I could go watch TV instead? The simple answer is that the “illusion” explanation doesn’t feel true to me, and that’s all I have. I have yet to see any compelling evidence that it’s one thing or another and I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that it’s possible to prove. Wren says this quicker than me: “In a sense, who cares if it’s chance or my God or my spell?  It’s a good thing that happens; I’ll take that and thank you very much!”   

Does magick demand faith? If so why?

I’m not sure I understand the question, sorry. I’m kind of sticky on the whole concept of “faith” – it might be what I talked about in 5, the feeling of something being true – in which case I guess it does. If you don’t feel it’s true, why would you bother doing it? If you were asking something else, I’ll try to answer if you clarify. What is the thing that is doing the demanding?

Would you agree with the statement “Magick is whatever you want it to be.” ?

No – that would be kind of meaningless. I think it’s a word with a broad range of definitions and is often situational (cooking, for instance, can be a form of magic, or not, depending on how you go about it) but it’s not just anything. (Wren, who knows a thing or two about magical cooking, says “Mindfulness is a big part of magic, and mindful cooking is very different from slap something on the table ’cause we’re hungry.”)

If any type of prayer to any being/force/power is magick, would you say that everyone has access to magick to the exact same depth as everyone else? Do some people have more? if so why?

I don’t think that every type of prayer is magic or that every type of magic is prayer – I don’t see them as the same thing. I do think that everyone has access to magic if they want it. I also think that some people are just more talented at it, just as some people are more talented at music or poetry. I have always had the ability to access the Otherworld, for instance, so when I started reading about it I was able to say, oh that! I can do that! Someone who hasn’t had that ability might have a much harder time. Anyone can learn to play the piano if they practice enough, but some people find it easier than others and many people don’t have any interest in learning the piano or never encounter a piano – everyone has the same fundamental access to “piano-playing ability” but some will find it easier than others and some who might like it or be good at it never encounter it at all. And, as I’ve said, there are other ways to do magic that I’m not so good at and others are – where I might be champion piano player, I could be just OK at the violin and hate the bassoon – so even if one approach isn’t for you, there are others.

Was there a point when you did critically examine whether they could be something other than magick, whether psychological, neurological, physiological, etc?

I have thought about all these things, of course, and the answer to “could it be something other”? is always “yes” because the Universe is a really big place and there are  always other modes of explanation. “Critical examination” is one of those things that I do a lot of, so there was no single time where I examined all this – I do it constantly, with everything. But I’ll try to go further into the question – you’re talking about different models of experience, I think – the common one that we have in this culture is that there is a firm and impermeable barrier between “stuff that happens in my head” and “stuff that happens in the Real World.”

I’m not convinced that there is any such barrier, though it is a helpful model for many situations. I think a lot more of the Real World happens in our head than we think about, and a lot more of what goes on in our head is connected to “the world out there” than we think about – perception is a funny thing and we impose meaning upon the world with every thought. Does that mean that all meaning is imposed? I don’t know – I don’t think so, but I’m really not sure.

“When you communicate with the Unseen you’re really talking to your own subconscious”  is apparently considered to be the less-superstitious, more material, rational explanation, but the idea that there is this whole part of my brain that has access to a vast amount of information and yet is inaccessible to my ordinary consciousness except under certain conditions where it takes on the appearance of another being and communicates with me as though it is someone else – this is the simple explanation? It seems so much simpler to say “There are other consciousnesses that are different from our own and operate in a different way but can communicate with us.” I suppose the secret-brain-basement theory might be the true one but it seems needlessly complicated and is only deployed to save the “in here/out there” dichotomy, which faeries pretty much just giggle at.

Wren says, “I think the brain-basement is an okay explanation, too, for two reasons: I think that we are all The Stuff Behind The Universe, whether you call that God or Nature or Fred the Giant Walrus.(hi Fred!) Being that we are all that thing, some part of us has access to that thing. Why are we here if we’re all that thing? Beats the hell outta me, but I’m having a good time. It’s hard, it’s scary, there are times when I want off of this damn ride, but adventure is rarely fun when you’re having it. You remember it later as challenging and fun and a good test of your abilities, but in the thick of it, it kind of sucks. The other reason is, it might be how it works. I have no idea 🙂 and I won’t have all the answers ’til I’m dead and they give me my library card. :)”

I think she and I are saying similar things here – since we are part of everything and partake of everything, there is no wall between inner and outer worlds. It’s a convenient fiction. My issue is with the pseudo-rationalist argument that says that if we can just stuff everything nonmaterial or nonrational into the brain and keep it inside the skull by using psychological or neurological explanations, we’re doing something inherently more logical and sensible than if we simply accept experience and perception as they come to us – if I see the fairy and you don’t, it doesn’t mean that the fairy isn’t real, it just means that I see it and you don’t.

 “It seems I could replace god with a 3 sided die and still get the same kind of answers. Without some kind of direct manifestation how could I tell?”  I am fortunate to have experienced such manifestations and have had enough interesting communications with other beings that I don’t think the 3-sided die thing enters into it. The answer isn’t really “yes, no or not now” – it’s usually a much more extensive conversation than that. Even if it’s “no” there’s something to be learned from “no” that you couldn’t get from a three-sided die. 

I can’t answer your question about differences between your old faith and magic – I don’t know enough about it, though magical practice occurs among all faith traditions, as far as I can tell. It’s not the same thing as religion, and none of it is mutually exclusive. Also, what I’ve described is just my way of going about things – others do it very differently.

Wren says “Having been religious and now being spiritual/magic user, they are not similar.  The two basic differences that I can see are: in religion, you DON’T have a personal relationship with god/the power that is.  It’s filtered through a church, a book, something outside of you.  A lot of religions say that is not true, and they encourage their members to have a personal relationship with god… but the thing is, the god that the parishioners are talking to is something that’s been defined by their teachings and their particular laws.  The other difference is the relationship itself.  A genuine personal relationship between beings is nothing at all like a forced relationship with strange external views imposed.  Analogy:  religion to me is like visiting a person in prison.  Someone Else tells you how long to stay, where you can meet, what you can talk about.”

Here’s a concrete example of something that happened recently that I consider to be magical:

Last week, I went to the Spoutwood Fairie Festival. Before going, I requested that I get a sign sometime during the day from Lugh, the Celtic bright god to whom I turn in the warmer months from Beltaine to Samhain – since this festival was at Beltaine, I asked in part as a devotional practice (because once you ask for something like that, you start looking, which keeps the god foremost in mind all day and encourages an attitude of devotion) and also in hopes of learning something useful by having my attention drawn in that way.

The festival was lots of fun and I had a great time and always kept my eyes open for my sign. Late in the day, I went to hear a talk from a bard, and he showed up, a sunny blond Scotsman all dressed in fiery colors – I thought, well, that might be it, but maybe I’m reaching on this one – until he said, unprompted by me and as part of his talk, that he was dressed as Lugh. Bingo! I thought, and listened closely, and learned a few things but nothing huge beyond the fact that he was a good speaker and knew about things that I wanted to learn more about. After the talk, I learned that he was relatively local and did workshops and such on topics of interest to me. So I took a flyer and later learned that while he had a few things coming up, his teaching fees were a bit higher than I could manage – not super high, but enough to make it just out of reach. I went to the fairies and said, um, little help? and shortly after got a check in the mail for some money that I was owed but had forgotten about – just enough to cover the workshop fee and travel expenses.

There are different ways to look at this series of events. One way is that the storyteller’s Lugh costume was a divine signal that I needed to learn something from this man, and the cash assistance was sent by otherworldly beings to lend material assistance towards this goal. Another way is that, in a whole giant fairy festival, something was bound to remind me of Lugh and confirmation bias would cause me to consider this as a significant thing when in fact it was a random occurrence, and the money was something that was coming to me anyway and is in unconnected to the event of meeting the storyteller. For someone who sees the world in terms of webs of connection and relationships between the seen and unseen, the first version might seem more likely; for someone who sees the world in terms of random events occurring independently of each other in ways unconnected to the observer, the second version would be preferable. The thing happened – that is true. Pigment and canvas arranged together make a painting; a series of sounds make a song – is the series of sounds the same thing as the song? Is the pigment the painting? What’s the truth there?