My 7 tips for students of anything (but especially magic)

Harry Potter charms class
Hmph. Teacher’s pet.

A couple of months ago there was a bit of a to-do regarding various attitudes toward teaching and students in the occult community, especially the WMT. (See for example here, here, here (and also the comments), here, here, and also here, although the last link doesn’t address the issue of the original proposed “ten tips.”) As a former teacher of academic subjects, now a student of the occult, I thought I’d turn the telescope around and offer a holistic point of view. I was inspired by the 10 tips format, but since some of the original points were redundant in my view, I have condensed my list to 7.

1. You know a lot of stuff. Your teacher knows more.

It’s not a matter of hierarchy or of your relative ages, grades, or statuses. Quite simply, there’s a reason you wanted a teacher–you wanted to be taught. By definition, if you accept someone as a teacher, you are accepting that they probably know a lot more about this subject than you do. But occult learning isn’t grade school–no one should force you to accept anyone as your teacher. A good teacher is an eternal student, and will learn from their students in a reciprocal exchange. At the same time you should respect the amount of time, energy, and work that has gone into forming their expertise. If you already knew the material, you wouldn’t be here.

2. When you ask a question, listen to the answer. That’s what you came here for.

Every student should feel comfortable asking any question, including ones that challenge the teacher. However, it should always be remembered that the goal of the question is to further learning. I once took an online free course about Mexican curanderismo. Venturing into the student discussion forum, I witnessed a display of immaturity that I found embarrassing as a fellow student. One student–a self-described Wiccan–had started a discussion to complain about one of the teachers using the word “witch” in what he took to be a pejorative manner. (The curandera had stated that curandero/as are not witches.) Now, from my point of view, the teachers were graciously offering–free of charge!–to share their knowledge with us. Since no one was forcing us to take this course, all of us students were presumably there by choice to seek that knowledge. To then try to control the teachers’ use of language seemed bullying and self-aggrandizing to me. Especially bearing in mind that because of the subject matter, the teachers were frequently moving back and forth from Spanish to English terminology, but also attempting to make concepts from Mexican, Spanish, and Southwest Native American cultural contexts intelligible to Americans. It would have been perfectly appropriate to ask for elaboration of what the concept of “witch” means within the context of curanderismo, to open a dialogue about differences in terminology and religious perspective. It also would have been an excellent opportunity for the Wiccan student to examine his own biases and “triggers.” But he only wanted to make himself the center of attention.

3. Not every question has an answer. Even when there is an answer, the teacher’s job is not necessarily to give it to you.

When I was teaching this was probably my biggest frustration. After 12 or more grades focused on passing standardized tests, my students came to me believing that teaching is all about giving students facts, and learning is the memorization and prompt forgetting of those facts. It is unfair to expect students to transition from that style of “learning” to the old-fashioned humanistic model of the university, but that’s what we have to deal with. I found that many of my students had effectively been cognitively hamstrung by never having developed the neural networks for basic critical thinking or logical inference. In school, they learned half-assed memorization and obedience to authority; outside school, they learned that accuracy is irrelevant, and what matters is what makes you feel good or who can shout their opinion the loudest. Coupled with their belief that teachers are service providers who work for the students’ parents (as taxpayers), late-20th century “special snowflake syndrome,” and our tl;dr culture, you have a recipe for misery for both teachers and students.

From a more empathetic standpoint, imagine how scary it is for a student who has never learned to make logical inferences to suddenly find themselves in a milieu where their grade depends on being able to weigh competing arguments and thoroughly explore material that may challenge their personal beliefs. To discover that life is full of questions without answers, leading only to more and more refined questions, must be utterly unnerving. No wonder most bury their heads in the sand and carry on pretending. That doesn’t mean this trend should be allowed to grow unchecked–what passes for civilization is already showing signs of disrepair due to these failures of the educational system.

When I was a kid, if I didn’t know what a word meant, my teachers told me to look it up in the dictionary. But I didn’t stop there. I didn’t just look up the meaning–I also learned the word’s etymology and its component parts (prefix, root, suffix, etc.). I did this because I always wanted to know more and understand better. As a result, whenever I encounter an unfamiliar word–sometimes even in foreign languages–I am frequently able to figure it out based on its components. If you have accepted the reality of magic, that attitude should sound familiar. You should already have experience with looking beneath the surface, doing your own research, and breaking with convention. You should have figured out that nothing worth having comes for free (it might not cost money, but it always involves work). You should regard pushing and stretching your abilities as fun, because magic requires a lot of it.

4. The student’s role is very important, and should be taken seriously.

Good teachers regard it as a solemn responsibility to guide the next generation. It’s such a big deal, it can lead to big egos. Students should never feel embarrassed by a relative lack of expertise but should recognize the gravity of the project they are undertaking and their role as the next generation of teachers.

When I was teaching university courses, I frequently heard that the problems of academia would be fixed if it were treated as a marketplace and the students as customers, with teachers forced to compete for their attention. In fact, this is the root of the meltdown of the Western educational system currently in process. The undergrad students I knew mostly regarded class as onerous, the teacher as a terribly boring burden to be endured. If the teacher had to cancel class for some reason, students were thrilled. When was the last time you went into a retail business looking for a good or service for which you had already paid an extravagant amount, and were happy that no one showed up to serve you? Exactly. University is not a “service,” teachers are not “knowledge-delivery solutions,” and students are not “customers.”

It is well to remember that undertaking magical learning is a great responsibility, but no one forced it on you. You wanted it–now embrace it.

5. Use discernment in choosing a teacher.

Since no one is forcing you to take on a particular teacher, make sure you choose a good one, who recognizes your unique gifts and wants to see you bloom to your full capacity. Make sure what they are teaching is worth learning. That said, nobody’s perfect.

6. Do the work.

You have to do the work, no one else can do it for you. It’s hard because it is by nature challenging. Anything worth learning will take you apart and put you back together again in a new configuration. Anything worth learning forces you to take a long hard look in the mirror.

7. Keep your sense of humor, fun, and adventure.

You’ll need them all.

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It came from the deep

Have beings from inner/astral realms influenced, perhaps even deliberately directed, human cultures and civilizations? Should UPG be added to the list of evolutionary forces?

Sumac Icaro, from The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Ameringo.
“Sumac Icaro,” from The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Ameringo.

I am not the first person to pose this question, and some have argued emphatically that yes, our experiences on other planes have shaped our actions on this one (here’s one, here’s another, and another). Let me say first of all that I am not talking about “ancient astronauts”–corporeal visitors from other planets flying nuts-and-bolts spacecraft. If, as certain big-haired proponents of AA theory claim, extraterrestrials had visited Earth in sufficient numbers and over a long-enough span of time to be the Annunaki, build the Egyptian pyramids, the Maya pyramids, Stonehenge, ley lines, etc., I have two questions: (1) where is the material evidence for these material beings and spacecraft? Are you telling me no aliens ever died here, no spaceships ever crashed, nobody dropped an interstellar wrench or cigarette butt? And (2) where are they now? Did they just get bored after the Maya collapse? Did they decide that feeding us scraps has led us to lose our fear of them and start noisily scrounging around their trash bins at night, like city raccoons, or bears in a national park? So now they just drive by occasionally, making sure to keep the doors locked and windows up?

It’s not that I think visiting extraterrestrials are impossible, but they are completely conjectural. Experiences of immaterial visitors, however, are attested all over the place. They seem to happen all the time, but even those who have had such experiences often deny their reality because they don’t fit into the dominant philosophical paradigm of materialism. On the other hand, many people either believe in ETs or are at least willing to consider the possibility because that story fits within the materialist paradigm.

I am inclined to believe that Jacques Vallee is right when he argues that UFOs and ETs are essentially the same immaterial, or semi-material, phenomenon as faeries and miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary. As Gordon puts it, “The Neighbours already have a propensity to troll and those that present themselves in the guise of UFO phenomena are the trolliest of all.” At any rate, until someone shows me actual material evidence of ET, I shall remain skeptical of ET’s materiality. In the meantime, I feel there is more than sufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of non-material beings and experiences, even if I cannot explain their nature.


Howard Carter examining the coffin of Tutankhamun.
Howard Carter examining the coffin of Tutankhamun.

For years now I’ve been fascinated by questions of the psycho-magico-spiritual aspects of human civilization. But there are only three ways to investigate it: (1) Ancient texts provide a huge amount of information. The downside is it’s often cryptic or symbolic, and texts are always based in cultural contexts that are now missing. There is a reasonably good chance of unraveling the surface meaning of a text if the writing system has been deciphered, but its twilight language is likely to remain obscure. (2) Oral traditions still exist on the peripheries of the Westernized world, but we usually don’t recognize their importance until they are already disappearing. And sadly, it now seems that these traditions have to be protected from rapacious interests that would first steal, then commodify, and finally destroy. (3) Then there’s Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). This is the most direct route but also the most fraught, since not only do we have to learn to discern gnosis from imagination, it seems our interlocutors often have weird agendas of their own (not limited to trolling in UFO garb) which sometimes includes really crazy shit.

As an archaeologist by training, I often think about what archaeology might have discovered–what it might have restored–if it could have shaken off the chains of materialist orthodoxy. Realistically, I don’t think that could ever have happened, because the academic-intellectual project as we know it (including the discipline of archaeology) derives from the same cultural sources as materialist ontology. The entire moral justification for the practice of archaeology–digging up and confiscating old stuff and the graves of ancestors–is predicated upon the modern Western “religious sensibility” (to use John Michael Greer’s term). To wit, the belief that matter is devoid of spirit, and that includes human matter–so even if souls really do exist, they have long since vacated their mortal coil and therefore it harms no one to dig up the bones and take them to a museum half a world away.

This sensibility constrains the kind of questions that a professional intellectual can publicly ask. It’s perfectly ok to argue that other people are influenced by their culture’s spiritual/religious beliefs and even by hallucinations brought on by psychedelics; but to suggest that encounters with actual, non-material beings with goals of their own not only happen, but that they inspired changes in human behavior, would be to lose one’s job and reputation. Even tenure can’t protect one from those consequences.

During the halcyon “post-processual” era of the 1980s-1990s, archaeology flirted with more philosophical explorations of human being and doing; but that was followed by a hard swing back to quantitative analysis, the more mechanized and lab-centered the better. I butted up against this during my Ph.D. research: Fundamentally, I knew I was researching changes in consciousness that seem to have spread across Eurasia during the 1st millennium BC, and I hypothesized that these changes either dovetailed with, or precipitated, changes in concepts of the self. But there is no way to subject that to a quantitative analysis, and so all I could do was catalogue a list of “beliefs” attested in the literature. Even then, I was forced to add a completely irrelevant and overly simplistic quantitative analysis of categories of Eurasian funerary offerings, to make it all look scientific. I was expected to publish my dissertation, but to be honest, I’m embarrassed by the way it turned out. I’m sure there are some who would say that about the intellectual endeavor of archaeology as a whole. Part of what I’m trying to do here is to break out of those shackles without completely abandoning intellectual rigor.


The solar barque of Ra passing through the 2nd hour of the Duat.
The solar barque of Ra passing through the 2nd hour of the Duat.

When I was a teaching assistant in human evolution classes, we taught the four forces of evolution: gene flow, genetic drift, mutation, and natural selection. What if the Otherworld and its denizens should be added to that list?

I came across this article titled “Dream as a Constitutive Cultural Determinant–the Example of Ancient Egypt” (free full-text pdf download available). From the article abstract:

“Among Ancient Egyptian texts there are a number of dream reports, which document an interest in observing dreams. Even larger is the corpus of the night literature that deals with themes of an otherworldly, nighttime reality, the so-called Duat. There are etymologic and textual hints that these assertions on a complex, nightly meta-reality in the Egyptian culture are especially related to the hours of the late night, the peak of REM-sleep and the phase of highest dream recall. This paper develops the hypothesis that the Ancient Egyptian culture appreciated dream experience as a reality deserving high attention; and that the Egyptians deduced cultural knowledge from dream experience, intended for individual and collective, cultural application.

(Emphasis mine.) The author, Gotthard Tribl, bases his arguments mainly on etymological analysis of Egyptian language and hieroglyphs. To follow the argument, you need to know that a glyph can be read as an ideograph (a picture), a phoneme (a sound), or a determinative (a marker that indicates the general category of phenomenon to which the word belongs), and many words consist of all three. Tribl proposes that Egyptians’ consciousness and cognition was shaped by their dreamworking, though, interestingly, a hieroglyphic for “dream” has never been found. Instead the noun we would translate “dream” derives from a verb meaning “to awake in the morning,” with the addition of a determinative meaning “eye.” So it seems the Egyptians regarded the dream experience as a form of awakening, and that it was primarily construed as a visual phenomenon. Moreover, the words/glyph for “morning” (duau) and that for “Otherworld” (duat) are both written with the star hieroglyph (designated N14) plus determinative endings suggesting, respectively, time and space. Another related word, dua, shows a star followed by a man with upraised arms and a papyrus scroll, and means “‘to praise’ or ‘to adore’ in the morning.”

Egyptian literature about night and the Otherworld (duat) indicates that when the sun went down in our reality, it rose in the Duat. My own speculation, based on Tribl’s research, is that there were therefore two mornings–morning in our world, and morning in the Duat (which would have been evening in our world). Waking in the morning seems to have been followed by prayer/ritual/worship–but was this ritual performed during morning in this world, or morning in the Duat, or both? From a modern perspective, this means, was the person awake or asleep at the time?

Tribl’s work suggests that distinction may have been irrelevant to the Egyptians. For example, during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, texts and images indicate that

“…the Sem-priest was performing part of that ritual in sleep state (Hornung and Burton, 1991). Apparently, this part of the ritual dealt somehow with an active use of the sleep stateā€¦.the sleep state of the Sem-priest is clearly prominent in that ritual and belongs to the most original parts of it (Baly, 1930). Beyond doubt, scenes nine and ten depict sleep conditions accompanied by a ‘vision‘…”

(Emphasis added.) I don’t know if dreaming was understood as a visit to the Duat, though it seems possible, at least based on the etymological argument and the surviving religious texts. Regardless, it seems that what we would call dreamworking and lucid dreaming were a huge deal in Egyptian life, and that priests and/or magicians would have been expected to be skillful navigators of that realm. It’s very interesting to look at other heiroglyphs that include the N14 star glyph. It appears in the word “star,” and in the names of various stars and constellations, but also in the words for “priesthood” and “teaching.”

Egyptian words containing the star glyph.
Egyptian words containing the star glyph.

If you look at the glyphs N13-N15 above, you can see that in the first one, the half-arc above the star indicates the passage of a half-month. Not pictured here is the glyph for a full month, which contains a full arc above the star. I find it very interesting, then, that in the glyph for the Duat, the arc has been extended into a full circle–which rather suggests the cyclical nature of day/night and life/death in Egyptian mythology. (I am not an Egyptologist, just speculating, so I imagine someone else has had this thought before. If you know of a source, let me know.)

Since Egyptian magic, along with that of Greece, is one of the most influential roots of the Western Magical Tradition, one can’t help but wonder what influence this Egyptian dreamwork had upon the WMT, and indeed on Western civilization as a whole. How much of our culture comes from the Duat? And what does that mean for us humans? Can we assume that the beings with whom we are communicating have our best interests at heart, or are we merely bugs that get sucked into their grill as they drive past? From a gnostic point of view, one might hypothesize that the beings guiding us are archons who decidedly do not have our best interests at heart.

I hope to explore this more as we go.

On karma and magic

“Karmic,” by Horacio Cardozo.

When it comes to the nature of reality, one of the few things I feel pretty certain of is that most Westerners are completely wrong about karma.

The general attitude to karma in the West is that there is some cosmic scorekeeper, who punishes you with unpleasant life circumstances when you do wrong, and rewards you when you do right. Just as declaring bankruptcy doesn’t erase your student loans, death doesn’t rebalance your “karmic debt,” so if you are a bad person in this incarnation you can be assured of having a bad time of it next time around.

It makes sense that Westerners would see karma this way–it’s a viewpoint drawn directly from Christianity. Though there are some sects of Christianity in which it is believed that there’s no way for a person to deserve God’s grace, there are others–especially Catholicism–in which a person can accrue merit through good deeds. This may or may not result in blessings in this life; my understanding is that usually it’s construed as shortening one’s time in Purgatory. Many Protestant sects, especially those influenced by Calvinism, are of the opinion that happy life circumstances are a sign of God’s favor, whether or not you did anything to deserve them (not that you ever could, you miserable sinner). In fact, they argue that your behavior is already pre-ordained anyway, so the amount of grace in your life was determined before you were born.

In the 20th century, many Christians abandoned the idea of a judgmental God, original sin, and heaven and hell, but still wanted wrongdoers to be punished, and a misunderstanding of karma as an impersonal yet deterministic and judgmental force fit the bill. Even people who are not Christians (at least not any more) love the idea. There are even magic(k)al versions, such as Wicca’s threefold law of return (everything you do comes back to you in triplicate).

I recently came across this opinion that karma “has no place in western [sic] society” and “there is no karma unless you choose to believe in it.” (Spoiler alert: The author doesn’t believe in the threefold law either, and is pretty down on Wiccans generally.) I am not a Wiccan so I have no dog in that race, but I do take issue with the idea that karma exists only if you believe in it and you shouldn’t believe in it if you’re from the West.

I don’t have the slightest problem with learning from other cultures. Indeed, it would be stupid not to. Archaeologists and historians are pretty sure this is why the Norse colony in Greenland died out–they tried to farm and raise livestock like they had back home, and when the climate proved unsuitable, they opted not to learn marine mammal hunting from their “heathen” Inuit neighbors. The Inuit made it through the Little Ice Age fat and happy; the Norse Greenlanders all died. Racial and cultural essentialism is ahistorical bullshit and also stupid from a survival perspective.

But appropriation is a big worry for many Western white people nowadays. Basically, we pitched most of our traditions into the rubbish bin in favor of scientistic materialism, then, having grown dissatisfied with that, many white Westerners cast about for something that would give them a sense of spirituality and meaning and connection, and they/we pretty much had no choice but to borrow from other cultures that hadn’t fallen into the materialist trap, or occasionally, make up new stuff. (I’ll come back to appropriation in another post.)

At the same time, not coincidentally, European empires were heavily invested in oppressing and exploiting various less-materialistic societies, and that created a convenient opportunity for mining interesting philosophical and spiritual teachings. Especially for the British in India, where there were thousands of years’ worth of philosophical writings to reward those who could be troubled to learn Sanskrit and Pali. And so karma–or rather the total misconstrual thereof–made its way West. There were a lot of things that the Theosophists didn’t get right (and to be fair, plenty of Asians get it wrong too, as is the way with all esoteric conepts), but “karma” has probably been the most popular for the reasons I outlined above.

But as defined in its original meaning–and there are subtle differences of interpretation among different Indian philosophical schools, as one would expect–karma is an immutable law, and a damn useful concept. It’s an essential component of a worldview that magic(k)al people should recognize.

It works like this:

All beings are interconnected, directly or indirectly (six to infinity degrees of Kevin Bacon). For us animists, that means literally everything is interconnected. (Here’s one take on that.) Sticking with Indian philosophy for the sake of consistency, we can call this Indra’s Net, in which each being is a multifaceted jewel. From the Avatamsaka Sutra:

“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

(My emphasis.) Indra’s Net is thus a metaphor “used to describe the interpenetration of microcosmos and macrocosmos.” Hmm, interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm…where have I heard that before? Oh right. That would be the Western Magical Tradition then.

If we accept the interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm, and thus of all beings in the universe, it stands to reason that the ripples of one’s actions touch all beings. Given sufficient time (and pretending for the moment that time is linear and unidirectional), each action would affect and reflect from every single jewel in Indra’s Net, bouncing around and back again.

That’s karma. Karma is the situation of every action as–to borrow John Michael Greer’s phrase–“an ongoing cascade of interactions” within the infinite interconnectivity that is the universe. The complexity of it is beyond what the human brain can grasp.

Is there some cosmic calculator that makes sure you get punished for being bad? Of course not, but there is already shit in the pool, and if you shit in there too, there will be even more shit to swim through. What is this “shit”? It’s the Black Iron Prison, it’s man’s inhumanity to man. No one punishes you, you just deal with what you and others have co-created.

Magicians, sorceror/esses, witches, wizards, occultists–I haven’t met one that doesn’t believe in taking ownership of one’s creations. I don’t believe in a law of return, but I do accept the laws of thermodynamics. Because I recognize my part in unconsciously befouling the pool, with my conscious actions I try to fill the pool with rose petals, diamonds, and unicorns. Inevitably I am, like you, only magnificently human. We mess up a lot. Your personal system of ethics doesn’t have to include the concept of karma; you don’t have to be guided by empathy for others; you don’t have to think about the wider (indeed, infinite) effects of your actions or the unforeseen unfurling of your magics in space/time. But whether you think about it or not, you are bound in Indra’s Net. We are all in this universe together (unless we’re not, but that’s a topic for another day). Now that the term has been well borrowed into my native language, English, I find “karma” to be a convenient and succinct handle for this truth. What you choose to call it is up to you.