On the Western Esoteric Tradition, the World’s Most Misunderstood Spiritual Path, and “How to Be a Witch”
Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I get consistent requests to talk about “magick” or, as somebody with a lack of understanding might put it, “how to be a witch.” This is something I’ve been reluctant to do for the last six or seven years, because it’s a topic that’s so easily misunderstood, and that so easily gives the wrong impression—immediately conjuring images of mouth breathers in black robes hanging out at the local mall’s food court or New Agers trying to rip you off with nonsense woo claims.
But it’s not like that. Underneath that giant layer of foolishness, misdirection and misunderstanding, Magick is, in my opinion, one of the great gems of Western culture. It’s the tradition that some of the great geniuses of Western history—including the originators of science—were involved in: Francis Bacon, Daniel Dafoe, William Butler Yeats, Dr. John Dee, Giordiano Bruno, Pythagoras and many, many others, whether remembered by history or not.
“Magick” is the long-running sacred tradition of the West, in the same way that yoga or Tibetan Buddhism are sacred traditions in the East.
“Magick” is the long-running sacred tradition of the West, in the same way that esoteric yoga or Tibetan Buddhism are sacred traditions in the East. Practically speaking, it’s the path of enacting your spiritual growth ritually, in the day-to-day world, because that’s what tends to be healthy for people in Western cultures.
Dropping out of life and sitting up on a mountain top meditating for the rest of your life is, by-and-large, an Eastern path. It’s an outgrowth of Asian culture and a path that can work remarkably well in the cultural context of Hinduism or Buddhism. But people living in America, the UK, Europe or other “Western” locales by and large do not live in a culture that supports that. (Just try it!) We live in a culture that forces action in the world, where the path to independence, self-reliance and happiness tends to rely on rolling up your sleeves and getting stuff done in the real world.
While the Western tradition incorporates a lot of meditation, it isn’t a path that allows escape from reality. It’s the path of directly confronting reality, the circumstances of your life, and using those circumstances as the raw material for your spiritual growth. Consider the legend of alchemy, in which the practitioner is spoken of as having the “magic” power of transmuting lead into gold—or even, in some versions, turning shit into gold. This is what it’s about—taking lead, which represents mundane, boring existence, and turning it into gold. Taking the shit that you’re given, and turning it into gold. Taking the raw matter of existence and making something incredible out of it.
The Western sacred tradition has been an underground tradition for most of the last two millennia because of persecution by the Catholic Church and other religious institutions (despite, ironically, the fact that many of its adherents were historically seeking direct communion with Christ, perhaps a threat to the priesthood’s monopoly). It has snaked its way through our history and manifested under various names and at various times as Gnosticism, Catharism, witchcraft, alchemy, Qabalah, Enochian, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, the Golden Dawn, Thelema, Chaos and many other forms.
The Western tradition is often given the blanket name “Magick.” This is unfortunate in some ways, because it conjures up fanciful ideas of “magic powers” (not the point), and immediately makes people associate the Mysterium Tremendum with the following things which are bullshit:
Tacky Satanic nonsense; New Agers trying to charge you $180 for a lavender-scented enema; people into magic mainly as a way to accumulate jewelry and flashy clothes to one-up other outsiders; people into magic to collect books or art (see reason above); people telling you “heyyy man you don’t have to do it the hard way” despite never having done it the hard way; people using spirituality to advance a personal, cultural, financial or political agenda; religious or cult servitude; servitude to evil spirits; being into that one band that uses occult imagery; people who think they can “put spells” on other people; people who take a lot of drugs and conclude that they are special; creepy swingers who lure impressionable undergraduates into their mildewy dens of suburban sin with the promise of “real power!!!1”
Magick has nothing to do with any of this.
It does have to do with:
Hard work, perseverance, study, discipline, self-sacrifice, years and years of painful trial-and-error learning, humility, constant adaptation and evolution, devotion to your own integrity, learning to let go.
There are no hard and fast rules on how to do that—and the details are different for every single individual. But there are guidelines and practices that help. So, “How to Be a Witch”? Broadly, you live a magical life by:
1. Disciplining your body, mind and spirit;
2. Figuring out what you’re here for—your unique purpose for existing (note that this is a continuum, and evolves over time);
3. Using the discipline developed in Step 1 to accomplish Step 2, understanding that when you Do your True Will, or engage in your reason for existing, life makes a whole lot more sense. It’s not necessarily easier, but it’s infused with meaning, a major accomplishment in a world where people drift through seas of endless meaninglessness.
A Practical Resource Guide to Magick
For more practical information, here’s a resource guide to the Path composed of articles I’ve written:
1. I’ve written about the basic disciplines of magic here. Shows exactly how to break out of the conditioned social trance and begin the process of taking control.
2. You can follow that on with this primer on sex magick, which gives you the rocket fuel needed to kick your unconscious abilities into gear.
3. Before you get yourself into too much trouble, you might want to read this guide on how to avoid some of the major pitfalls in magick.
Here’s a couple of books I’ve put together on the subject:
1. Generation Hex. A beginner’s guide to the initial stages of magical training, in a 21st century context.
2. Thee Psychick Bible. The total archive of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, which contains the complete writing of Genesis P-Orridge and TOPY, the primary magic group active in the 1980s-90s.
Beyond that, I recommend three primary sourcebooks for exploring the Western esoteric tradition. These books contain a huge amount of material, organized in proper fashion, that thousands of other books fall far short of in terms of raw information.
1. Beginner Level: Liber Null & Psychonaut, Peter J. Carroll. The practices of ritual magic, stripped down and taken out of context. Good for picking up the very basics but take Carroll’s reductionist editorializing with fifty times the salt one would reserve for Crowley.
2. Intermediate Level: The Golden Dawn, Israel Regardie. Contains the ritual corpus of the Golden Dawn, the 19th century Victorian magic group which counted many of the country’s primary cultural movers among its members. This is a synthesis of most of what came before and the foundation of most of what came after.
3. Advanced Level: The Mystical and Magical System of the A.’.A.’., James A. Eshelman. A condensation and organization of Aleister Crowley’s system, which took the Golden Dawn material, added in Eastern mysticism and sex magick, and ratcheted the whole thing up to the tenth power. Alongside this you’ll want copies of Gems From the Equinox and Magick: Liber ABA by Crowley.
(Bonus! For a look at the Eastern side of things, in a format accessible to Westerners: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.)