Last week I was sponsored by the Tri-College Mellon Working Group on Magic to give two lectures. The first on The Place of Magic was held at Swarthmore College and was only to professors and guests of the group. In attendance was Yvonne Chireau author of Black Magic: African American Religion and Conjuring Tradition, Eoghan Ballard the famed scholar of Afro-Carribean traditions, and Professor Radcliffe Edmond author of Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion and the upcoming Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion.*
The second lecture was held at Bryn Mawr, was open to all students, and was on Sane Eclecticism: Responsible Synchretism and the Occult. Truth be told, because of my own eclectic background about half of the first talk was about this as well. The balance between eclecticism and tradition is something that I think about a lot.
One the one hand, the great gift of our age is that the doors have all been more or less thrown open. We have unprecedented access to magical and religious practices that people in former decades never dreamed possible. This is not ONLY because of the internet either. I grew up in a small town in NJ and before I was 20 I had encountered and learned magic from a Wiccan Priestess, a African American Conjure Man, a Santera, a Rosicrucian/Ceremonial Magician, and the Ngakpa that not only became my Root lama but introduced me to the OTO and Thelemic thought.
If I was to just pick one tradition and only one, I feel like it would be a betrayal of what the universe presented me with.
On the other hand we have people that are so loose and eclectic that it is silly. This is the Wiccan that tells you Kali is her Goddess and Jesus is her God – meanwhile she knows almost nothing about either one. This is the person that announces that they also practice phurba – but what they mean is that they use it as an athame to cast circles. This is the ceremonialist that calls on the Orishas in the LBRP. This is the Crowley himself when he tried to tackle Taoism.
So how do we walk the line? How do we take advantage of the access that believe is the great gift of the age, without falling into dilettantism, delusion, or danger?
The question is different for different people, but I myself have some rules that I follow and would like to share here. Following these has generally allowed me to put together a magical system and style that draws upon traditions new and old, yet still allow me to be taken seriously by most traditionalists.
1. DO NOT USURP TITLES: this is by far thee most important rule. If you read a book on Vodou it does not make you a Houngan or Mambo. If you read every book on it ever written, memorize 12 cd’s worth of songs, and spend every weekend drawing veve’s and invoking the Loa it STILL does not make you a Houngan or Mambo, because that is based on an initiation. You can be a Vodousant, and you may even know more than many initiated Houngans out there (more on that in a minute) but you still have not been initiated, so don’t take the title.
This is not just personal titles. You should not usurp the titles of traditions or toold either. You can read books on Dzogchen. You can do the practices. You can even attain the result. But if you have not had the introduction to mind from a person, you are not doing Dzogchen. Call it something else. You can make a spirit pot. You can even study and draw upon how Prendas are constructed, but unless you do it in that tradition it is not that thing, and should not be called that.
2. IF YOU HOLD A TITLE, DON’T THROW IT AROUND UNTIL YOU KNOW YOUR SHIT: This is the flip-side of #1 above and is something that not a lot of people talk about, including traditionalists. It is possible in this day and age to get the coveted initiations that I talk about above, but still know next to nothing. Houngan Hector here in New Jersey told me that shortly after he developed an interest in Vodou he flew down to Haiti and was initiated Houngan Asogwe along with a bunch of other people that were very new to Vodou. This is the highest level of initiation. He flew down, did his thing, and flew back. The problem was that he only knew a handful of songs and some other things that he gleamed from books. Now, much to Hector’s credit he flew back down again and again, and found people to give him the training that he knew he wanted. Other people however are happy with the title and just use it to validate whatever they make up.
Again, the same thing happens in the east. You can be born a Tulku (recognized incarnation) and be enthroned as a lama without ever going on retreat. One famous Lama was the subject of a paternity suit that he eventually lost. Some true believers thought that he must be innocent because Tantra teaches how to hold back your semen during orgasm, and therefore he wouldn’t get someone pregnant by accident. The problem with this line of thinking is that this particular Rinpoche probably did not ever master that technique or many others you might expect. He was a Tulku by birth, and spent most of his life in the west. He can write books on pop psychology and anything else he wants, and it will be passed off as Buddhism as long as his name is attached.
I am a Bishop because I have been consecrated as such, but I don’t throw the term around much because I have not had (nor am I even desiring) the training that one gets in a mainstream seminary or even in a larger Gnostic Church like the AJC. Thus, I don’t try to use the title to add validity to my crap.
3. SEPARATE TECH FROM SYMBOL SET: Systems of magic can be broken down into symbol sets, and tech. Symbol sets are usually dependent on culture, time, tradition, and sometimes only available through initiation. Using a symbol set outside of its culture, or initiatory stream can sometimes be difficult, disrespectful, or even downright dangerous. Tech on the other hand works because it works, and thus can be looked and examined from outside of any specific tradition. In this way you can find the most effective techniques without falling into the trap of making an eclectic mess. For example it would be find to borrow the idea of multiplying offerings with the mind from Tibetan Buddhism and use it in Wicca. It would be quite another to grab the nearest Phurba and call it your Athame, using it in the way that an Athame is used without really learning anything about the Tibetan Phurba traditions.
Iron being apotropaic. Triangles trapping or manifesting spirits. The appearance of the Swastika. Circles as protection and microcosms. These things work because they work. There is tech there that is beyond anyone’s claim of propriety.
4. REALIZE THAT TECH TAKEN FROM ITS ORIGINAL SETTING IS NO LONGER EXACTLY THAT THING ANYMORE: Recent university studies of Tummo have confirmed that you can control core body temperature with breath and mind. You can do it outside of the context of Tantric training. There are health benefits, and mental benefits. This is a good thing. However, it no longer Tummo at that point. Some people think Tummo is about producing heat in a cold climate (Tibet), but that is not it at all. Tummo developed in India. It is about producing bliss. The heat is a by-product. You use that bliss in Kamamudra practices and other yogas to realize Buddhahood.
I think it is great and cool to learn how to do Tummo and gain the helth benefits, but outside of Tantra it is no longer Tummo. It is something else.
5. REALIZE THAT YOU ARE GOING TO PISS SOME PEOPLE OFF. BE O.K. WITH THAT. For instance I recommended a while ago that people who did not want to use animal sacrifice could borrow the Tibetan tech of the so-called blood red tormas. These are cakes that look like severed heads and blood sacrifices that Buddhists used to propitiate local beings as as Dharma protectors, but who previously relied upon blood sacrifice. I noted that some people involved in ATR’s are already doing this using red palm oil as blood. A noted practitioner who has expereince in both Tibetan Buddhism and ATR took issue with this advice because there is not the same concept of emptiness in ATR’s as there is in Buddhism and the Gods would be offended.
The thing is that this tech was specifically developed when a people that did not sacrifice animals came into contact with, and needed to interact with, people and entities that DID. It arose out of cross-cultural magic. This is EXACTLY what this kind of thing is for.
In the end people have to experiment, look at the result, and decide for themselves. Part of this is respectfully noting, but eventually ignoring the occasional detractor.
6. APPROACH ANY TRADITION FROM ITS OWN BASE. The Chakras are not the Sephira. If you try and approach the Chakras as Sephira you will not understand them at all, and probably mess up your understanding of Sephira in the process. Freya is not just another venusian Archetype. She is different.
Recently someone on FB was asked if they do the Middle Pillar ritual. They replied that they do not, and they do my Pillar and Spheres excercise instead. While I am honored and touched by this, the two rituals are completely different and have almost nothing in common with one another, Pillars and Spheres sets up an alchemical reaction among the five elements in the body by placing them in a certain order. It has nothing at all to do with the Tree of Life, and is not a substitute. No reason that one could not do both if you wanted to.
When you approach a different system, try as much as possible to forget what you know about other systems for at least a while. Approach it as a complete newbie so you can view it on its own terms and from its own base.
7. DECIDE ON THE LEVEL OF INVOLVEMENT YOU WANT, AND DON’T CONFUSE IT: An argument that people have used against practicing more than one magical system, and even against raising children in more than one religion, is that any given path takes a lifetime to master. This is true. I could spend the rest of my life living in Nepal and studying Himalayan magic and never learn it all. You an spend your entire life as a Kimbanda Priest and never exhaust what there is to learn and master. You can be Catholic from birth till death and never completely master the whole thing. You can spend 30 hours a week practicing Tai Chi and still never get as good as Chen Xiouwang. All this is true.
But sometimes you don’t want to Master something. You just want to gain competency, and that takes a lot less time. You can spend your life studying German and learning to master the language, but for most of us the ability to hold conversations is enough, and it doesnt take that long to learn that. Being a Martial Arts master is wonderful and amazing, but for most people learning enough to maintain health, defend themselves in a fight, and maybe have some fun sparring will not be a lifetime obsession. I am a not about meditation and would spend hours in meditation a day if I could. A cubicle jocky at the insurance company however might only want to lower his stress levels, gain some control over their thoughts, and be happier, in which case 20 minutes a day will do them a world of good.
People that are competent in multiple areas themselves become masters of making connections that specialists lose the ability to see. Look at the CEO’s of the world. Do you think Steve Jobs as the best design person at Apple? Was he the best accountant? Was he the best technician? The best marketer? Probably not. He could however see connections that maybe others could not and bring these all together in ways that others could not.
Competency is fine. Great in fact. I like it. I forget who said it but specialization is for insects. Just don’t confuse competency with Mastery.
*Yeah. Total shameless bragging and name-dropping here. For a community college drop-out to find themselves invited to give a talk to a group like this at a University like Swarthmore was kind of a big deal for me.