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Eight Things About Magic

Humans have an innate capacity and drive to learn and grow.

This works out best when we’re in rich, supportive environments, but we all have it all the time. It’s the drive that allows babies to learn to walk, talk, and start to imitate the people around them. It never stops, though! This is why things like unschooling and democratic schools are awesome — kids can direct themselves to learn what’s most relevant to their lives. Luckily, it also works for adults. When we have interests and the resources to pursue them, we tend to – though how that looks varies a lot from person to person. On this level it’s a prosaic process, but pretty amazing.

The same drive, though, tuned finely and trusted enough, can also help us to develop deeper and deeper levels of intuition. This meta-skill can lead to everything from creative scientific thinking and ground-breaking art to deep insight into spontaneous or energetic healing, psychic communication with people and other living things, impossibly lucky breaks, increased charismatic influence, visions of the future, and other experiences that we generally regard as magical. Again, this is highly individual and manifests differently for everyone, but it does tend to happen.

Desire is the major key to this process.

Just like the baby doesn’t have to be educated into wanting to walk, you already know what’s good for you. If you’re starting to feel like maybe the things you thought you wanted aren’t that good for you after all, congratulations! This doesn’t mean you were wrong, it just means your desires are evolving, which is a crucial and natural thing. Of course, other people’s desires count too, but we’re social animals, so generally we have some desire to work all that out and make choices that are broadly beneficial. In fact, intuition often helps us to find that balance much better than the web of accidental obligation that we often find ourselves mired in.

Does this mean I’m saying it’s cool if you do things that harm people? Well…that’s a big category, and I don’t think we should be too responsible for the feelings of others. But, no, I’m not saying that I personally am cool with you lying a lot, for example. I know I wouldn’t like it if you lied to me! I’m just saying I don’t think the moral framework is super useful, and it often handicaps us in terms of tapping into that fundamental sense of desire.

Another key is somatic practice and the felt sense, the idea of learning about your environment by noticing how your body responds —

the tightening of your stomach, or the opening of your heart, for example. If this kind of information is hard for you to tune into at first, you should know that it gets easier with practice. It is worth noting, though, that a lot of us are carrying around a lot of somatic baggage from traumas large and small, and this can make it difficult to trust the felt sense and whether it’s providing accurate information about the current situation. Getting curious about this and learning tools to work with it (like TRE and toning the vagus nerve to increase parasympathetic nervous system activation) are, IMO, underutilized magical practices. Once you get some clear information about what your body likes and dislikes, take it seriously. What kind of environments, routines, relationships and practices actually feel good to you? This counts.

Another thing that counts more than we generally give it credit for is imagination, or visual processing in general.

Together, somatic processing and visual processing bring a greater depth and breadth to the type of thinking we’re usually more conscious of, and exponentially increase the power we can use to make good and intuitive decisions. Tuning in to imagery by studying dreams, doing guided visualization, playing with metaphor, creating visual art, and using image-based symbol systems like the tarot helps a lot. Be curious about the images that come up for you, especially if they come up again and again or provoke an emotional response. Keep in mind that you don’t have to interpret the things you see literally. In fact, there’s a lot in life that you don’t have to interpret literally, which is one of the big lessons that can be integrated through this kind of work.

Magically speaking, trance work involving visualization is a powerful practice with a lot of different applications. It’s not uncommon for this kind of work to lead to relationship and communication with various types of interesting spirits; it’s also not uncommon for it not to. Magic shows up differently for each of us, which is worth considering and being real about.

What’s real for us can change over time, though, and the most powerful things often exist just over the border of what we consider real, workable, or at the very least comfortable.

You know that cliche about magic happening outside your comfort zone? It’s true, but very narrowly. Being right outside your comfort zone is generally great for neurological function and intuition and eventually leads to a larger, more powerful comfort zone. Being way outside your comfort zone, especially if you’re feeling pressured or unsupported, leads to somatic shutdown and reactive behavior. Oops. Navigating this line may be the most important magical skill of all.

Another nomination for the most important magical skill (which, maybe on some level is actually the same thing) is the skill of play.

Play is hard to define, but when people try they often say things about a time and place that’s set aside, with rules that are different from the rules of everyday life. I’ve read about a million occult and philosophy books, and one of the most amazing bits of information I’ve ever come across is that the definition of ritual can look very similar: a space set apart from the everyday by a collection of special rules. Ritual, though it varies hugely, is a thing that has developed in every culture on Earth, and play is a thing we all do instinctively — in fact, one of its other defining features is fun, or in other words, something we all desire on a fundamental level. Play and ritual often incorporate embodied action as well as imagination and some degree of risk, creating a powerful stew of magical ingredients. They open the door to enhanced learning, emotional healing, trauma release, energetic bonding, creative problem solving and conflict resolution.

Another really cool thing about all this is it’s a roughly circular process that can be iterated indefinitely, leading to organic, ongoing growth.

The steps don’t always proceed in an orderly fashion, but one thing often leads to another. A dream might lead to increased awareness of a particular physical sensation, for example, which might lead to clarity around a new desire. Or, a desire might lead to a spontaneous vision, which develops into a challenging series of new physical practices that you can get excited about.

When in doubt, ritual is a great way to step outside your daily life and personal habits for a minute and get a slightly more objective view on what you’ve been up to and how you might like to change when you go back. I think the hermit crab is a great inspiration for this. Like us, it needs structure to survive, but when the structure doesn’t fit, it knows it’s time to move on. There are always more shells on the beach, and more ways of being magical in the universe.

I’ve been thinking about those seven principles for a long time, but recently I’ve been working on an eighth, and I’m editing this essay to mention it here: the importance of community and relationship.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t practice magic on your own, or that the people you interact with need to define it in the same way, or even that a magical community has to be people. But this kind of thing is overlooked way too often in mainstream American culture, and I’ve been noticing that it might be a missing key to magical practice.  Of course it can be fun to experiment with what exchanging energy, information and attention with a partner or a group can bring to your rituals and results, but there’s a deeper layer, too.

One of the central challenges of magical practice has to do with discipline. Do you use (internal) force to get yourself to practice even when you’re really not feeling it? Or do you go with the flow all the time at the risk of doing what’s easy and never really sticking with anything? How do you find the balance? I’m starting to feel like the most humane answer to this kind of question might have something to do with community.

Like, even an emergent, relatively unstructured group (in, ideally, a supportive designed environment) can carry something more easily and with less risk of dropping it entirely than one person can, and that something includes an organic collection of values and practices.

I think – like I said, this one is newer to me. I’m working on it, and would love to practice community by hearing about what you think.