Spec Tech: Learning Magic

It is not always obvious in the world created by the literature of magic that the young magician needs training. Hogwarts, of course. Lev Grossman, true. But Earthsea and Middle-earth: those magicians needed seasoning, not schooling. I am here to tell you that training is important, at least if you live on dull earth where the magic isn’t so evident.

I am an anthropologist and half a psychologist and what I do is to figure out how people learn to experience what they have to imagine as real. Many years ago, as a young ethnographer, I set out to study people who practiced magic in present-day Britain. It was my dissertation project. I was curious about how magic could come to seem real to modern people. Most of these people thought of themselves as worshipping an ancient goddess under the full and pendulous moon. For them the earth was alive, and they sought to feel its power pulsing beneath their feet. They thought of themselves as shamans, druids, witches and warlocks, responsive to the subtle rhythms of the earth. They lived in London, these magicians, and they held modern jobs and had modern lives. But they imagined themselves into another time. When I set out to understand how they came to believe in magic, I joined their groups. I read their books and novels. I practiced their techniques and I participated in their rituals. For the most part, the rituals depended on techniques of the imagination. You shut your eyes, and saw with your mind’s eye the story told by the leader of the group.

In the late afternoons, I practiced these techniques, following the instructions I was given. Here is an example from on one of my early lessons (credit to Marian Greene), which I did, in some form, for thirty minutes a day for nine months:

Work through these exercises, practicing one of them for a few minutes each day, either before or after your meditation session.

  1. Stand up and examine the room in which you are working. Turn a full circle, scanning the room. Now sit down, close the eyes and build the room in imagination. Note where the memory or visualizing power fails. At the end of the exercise briefly re-examine the room and check your accuracy. Note the results in your diary.
  2. Carefully visualize yourself leaving the room in which you are working, going for a short walk you know well, and returning to your room. Note clarity, breaks in concentration, etc, as before.
  3. Go for an imaginary walk; an imaginary companion, human or animal, can accompany you. Always start and finish the walk in the room you use for the exercises. Note the results, etc, as before.
  4. Build up in imagination a journey from your physical plane home to your ideal room. Start the journey in real surrounds then gradually make the transition to the imaginary journey by any means you wish. Make the journey to and from the room until it is entirely familiar.

What startled me, as a young ethnographer, was that this training worked. At least, it seemed to shift something in the way I used my senses and my internal sensory awareness. After about a year of this kind of training, spending thirty minutes a day in an inner world structured in part by external instructions, my mental imagery did seem to become clearer. I thought that my images had sharper borders, greater solidity and more endurance. They had more detail. I felt that my senses were more alive, more alert.  I began to feel that my concentration states were deeper and more sharply different from the everyday.

One morning, I woke early after an evening when I had read a book about Arthurian Britain and the early Celtic isles (it was written by a magician) late into the night. I had allowed myself to get deeply involved with the story, reading not the way I read a textbook but the way I read books like the Secret Garden as a child, giving way to the story and allowing it to grip my feelings and to fill my mind. And as I woke that morning I saw six druids standing against the window, above the stirring London street below. I saw them and they beckoned to me.  I stared for a moment of stunned astonishment, and then I shot up out of bed, and they were gone. Were they there in the flesh? I thought not. But my memory of the experience is very clear. I do not remember that I had imagined them, or that I had wanted to see them, or that I had pretended to see them. I remember that I saw them as clearly and distinctly and as external to me as I saw the notebook in which I recorded the moment, my sentences underlined and marked by exclamation points. I remember it so clearly because it was so singular. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.

But other people in the magical world had experiences like that. They practiced the exercises and read the books and participated in the rituals and then, out of the blue, they had seen something—the Goddess, or a flash of light, or a shining vision of another world.  They saw these as things in the world, not phantoms in the mind, although because the image vanished almost immediately, they knew that what they had seen was not ordinary. They said that their mental imagery had become sharper. They thought that their inner sense had become more alive.

That’s what the training does. It shifts attention from the external to the internal, and blurs the line we draw between the mind and the world–and the line actually changes. The mind bleeds into the world. Not predictably, and not on demand, and for some more than others, but when it happens, the senses experience what is not materially present. I’m going to talk about how this happens as these posts go on.


4 thoughts on “Spec Tech: Learning Magic

  1. Very cool indeed.

    I’ve studied modern witches, and know something about modern witchcraft, but as a skeptical person who has no dissertation to write, I never went so far as to practice any rituals.

    It’s fascinating to me because my mother is a sorceress. She calls herself a “dreamer” and believes she (among others) can change the world by conceiving it differently. To her, these things are as real as sunlight. To me, they aren’t.

    I’ve seen devout Christians have a similar blurring-of-the-lines, where they believe that every falling leaf, every cloud, every random encounter is a message directly from God about what they should do to conduct their lives. To them, it’s perfectly true. To an agnostic, this seems farfetched and somewhat egotistical to think that God has nothing better to do than brush the ice ahead of you so that you go to the right house.

    Sometimes I envy that magical thinking.

    1. One way you could both be right is… perhaps the “sign” is there by chance, but God has simply granted the viewer the insight to “read” it in a way that is helpful in the given moment. You pray to God to give you an answer, and He (or the focusing power of your own prayer, or both if you enjoy cognitive dissonance like I do) directs you to the nearest convenient thing. Kind of like tarot cards. 🙂

      1. Yup, I don’t think that understanding that understanding that learning is involved answers one way or another the question of whether the supernatural is actually there. Kater Cheek is right–this is what Christians do too, and in fact my recent focus has been on Christianity. Atheists look at the learning, and they understand how Christians can persuade themselves to see something they call God; Christians look at the learning, and they understand why, if God is always speaking, not everyone has learned to hear.

        The enjoyment of cognitive dissonance is a really interesting observation. Do you think writers are better at managing world-straddling?

  2. Marvelous post, Tanya! I think the whole business of training *mentally* for a life of magic is frequently neglected in the literature of the fantastic. Physical training, yes, it’s there. How to use your magic wand, how to ride your broomstick without augering in, how to turn a housfly into a black widow. (I would place Hogwarts mainly in that category.) The reason seems obvious. It’s easy to write about physical actions. Much, much harder to write well about the landscape of the mind and about what goes on there. Carlos Castaneda comes to mind. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s