Experimental Magic: The Evolution of Magic

Experiment with your magical practice by learning how to apply art, pop culture, neuroscience, psychology, and other disciplines to your magical work, as well as exploring fundamental underlying principles of what makes magic work. You'll never look at magic in the same way!

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Taylor Ellwood

Taylor Ellwood

Taylor Ellwood is the author of Pop Culture Magick, Space/Time Magic, Magical Identity and a number of other occult books. He posts about his latest projects at Magical Experiments. He is also the managing non-fiction editor of Immanion Press. Taylor lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two kids, as well as 7 cats.

In Defense of Pop Culture Magic

 

When I first wrote the Invoking Buffy article for Newwitch Magazine I got a lot of flak from the occult and Pagan communities. I was accused of being flaky, a fluffy bunny, and a variety of other labels. When I wrote Pop Culture Magick these criticism increased ten fold. Once, when I was talking with a Celtic Reconstructionist friend, she pointed out that her Gods had been around thousands of years, which seemed to automatically confer more validity to her spiritual practices, compared to my own. When I pointed out that the stories around her Deities were the pop culture for the people who had told the stories, I was told that such a perspective was blasphemous and that because her Deities had been around for millennia they were automatically more powerful than any pop culture Deity. And when I was interviewed by Pagan Centered Podcast it was a hostile interview, with their goal being focused on trying to disprove what I practiced. I could probably tell you a few more stories along these lines, but I think you get the idea: Pop Culture Magic, and any associated beliefs, spiritual practices, etc. are considered to be the bastard child of Paganism and Occultism by a good number of people who inevitably seem intent on proving why their beliefs are more valid, more spiritual, more anything than pop culture magic is.  And if you, like me, are associated with practicing pop culture magic you'll be told what a flake you are and how your spiritual practices aren't as good as the person to your left or right who believes in more traditional deities. You'll be told it's fiction and that you're wrong and they're right.

Some of this bias comes from a tendency to revere something that is older or more traditional (older is better), and perhaps even purportedly rooted in nature. While I think its important to maintain a connection to nature, I am skeptical as to how older religious systems automatically ensure that particular connection. If anything, I have found that developing a genuine connection with nature is much more primal and based on your willingness to spend time and effort in nature. For example, choosing to deweed your yard and really put your hands in the dirt to take care of the land is an action that is very connective to nature, with no Deity required to facilitate said interaction. A long hike can also be just as connecting, allowing you to become part of the land by choosing to be in it, instead of merely observing it. The smell of the land, the feeling as you walk it is a spiritual experience that again needs no Deity in order to facilitate it. All that is really needed is you and your willingness to connect with the land and learn from it, as a result of the connection.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood says #
    I think the recons would argue that they have allowed the gods to find and shape them. As for myself, any entity I'm working with
  • Rhiana
    Rhiana says #
    Let me start off by saying I find both arguments be they pro or con to have valid points. Having said that, I often wonder why we
  • Frater Isla
    Frater Isla says #
    Good point. And I've found that most internet 'discussions' are just ego dancing. I've maybe gotten two actual responses where I f

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Magic isn't always Glamorous

I've been thinking about what to write for this column for the last week and I've been coming up blank. No topic has really seemed right. There was nothing exciting going on or anything of real note standing out to me. If anything my life has been pretty mundane. Get up, go to meetings, meet with clients, come back and work on a project, spend time with the family, and of course throw some meditation and exercise in the mix for grounding purposes. Nothing very glamorous at all, and yet it strikes me that perhaps there is something to write about that, on this blog and its this: Magic isn't always glamorous or full of drama or anything else that we might associate with pop culture references to magic. Sometimes magic is just part of daily life, something you are doing to make your life easier or more meaningful or to connect with the spirits, but not something which necessarily has a lot of glamour associated with it.

My latest book, A Magical Life, has just been published. I'm excited to have it out, but something that the author of the introduction, Storm Constantine, wrote has been on my mind. In describing the book, she explains that magic isn't a colorful garment we put on, but rather it is an integral part of our being, woven into our lives everyday. And that is how I think of magic. I meditate each day and my meditations are an essential part of my life, something done as a way of bringing order to my mind, while allowing me to connect with the spiritual forces I work with. Nonetheless I'd have to say there is nothing inherently glamorous about the meditation. In fact, there are days I don't want to meditate or do anything else along those lines, and yet I make sure I do meditate because it is part of my life, and because not doing it takes away from the quality of my life.

I think to some degree your average magician is in love with the idea of magic being glamorous. Certainly at the beginning of a person's spiritual work with magic, there is this sense that you need to get all the ceremonial tools and that every act of magic must be an overt, explicit affair that screams to the universe: THIS IS MAGIC! And there is something to be said for doing those loud acts of magic that are glamorous and over the top and amazing in their own right. I've done and still do those kinds of acts of magic when the time is appropriate. But I recognize that fundamentally magic isn't always that way, nor does it need to be. My meditation practice isn't over the top and yet it still fills me with a sense of wonder and amazement. Indeed, if anything my daily work speaks more loudly to me than an over the top ritual because the daily work is where the discipline of the magician is tested. In that daily work, I don't necessarily do magic to solve problems (at least not overtly), but what I do is connect to the magic in a meaningful way that allows me to deepen my relationship to the spiritual forces I'm working with.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood says #
    Thank you Erik. I'm glad this article was helpful!
  • Erik M Roth
    Erik M Roth says #
    Thank you Taylor. This is a great reminder about the nature of magic and it's ability to weave into everyday life. I appreciate
  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood says #
    Indeed you are not. There are many people out there who realize this.

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
The feelings you put into magic

In my previous post I discussed how to emotions could be used in magic and made the point that an emotion such as anger is not inherently negative. What makes anger negative is we choose to express it. In thinking further about my own approach to magic and what I use to fuel my magical work, I recognize that it's not just emotions I draw upon, but experiences and the feeling of the experience. A feeling is not necessarily the same as an emotion. A feeling is the awareness of an experience and emotions are just one component of an experience and the expression of that experience. This is important because when we work magic to bring a possibility into reality part of what we are working with is the feeling associated with that possibility.

Think about love for a moment. What does love feel like? Don't think just in terms of the emotion, but also the physical sensations of you holding someone else's hand, or holding the person or kissing the person. What does that feel like? How does it make you feel emotionally? How does it make you feel intellectually, spiritually, and physically? All of those feelings and experiences are what love (romantic) is comprised of. So if you were to do a love magic working, you'd want to draw on those experiences as part of the fuel for the workings, because those experiences shape that feeling in your life.

But we can also apply this understanding to other circumstances. For example, if you work at a job, there will also be specific experiences and feelings you associate with the job, as well as emotions. If you decide to look for a new job or just need to find one, then any magic you work you want to infuse with the positive experiences you've had. Maybe you were praised by a manager or took pride in what you did or got a pay raise. Take all of those feelings and infuse them into your magical working.

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Emotional Magic: Can emotions be used in magical work?

The other day my wife Kat commented on a newsletter I'd written where I explained how you could use "negative" emotions in your magical work. She asked me if that was really a good idea, especially since I'd essentially be integrating those emotions into the magical working. It was a good question to ask, but what it highlighted to me is just how much cultural baggage we have around the word negative as well as specific emotions. I explained my reasoning by noting that I don't think any emotion is inherently positive or negative, but that if we believe an emotion is negative or positive it is because of the cultural associations that have been placed on that emotion. The problem with that association is that it causes us to not genuinely experience the emotion.

Anger, in and of itself, is not inherently negative. The expression of anger can be negative or positive, depending on what a person does, but that expression doesn't make the anger wrong or bad or negative. The expression isn't the anger in and of itself, but if we examine anger from a cultural perspective what we tend to find are associations of negativity with anger. The same is true with fear, sadness, anxiety, or any other emotion that is "negative" On the flipside love and happiness are considered "positive" emotions.  However expressions of love and happiness can be negative just as expressions of anger, sadness, and fear can be positive. There is nothing inherently polarized about our emotions other than what we choose to believe about them. 

Putting anger into a magical working could be quite useful depending on how you are using anger. I have used anger to fuel some of my magical work, with the goal being to improve a situation. I felt the anger and instead of allowing it to fester I chose to direct it into the magical working because I felt that it would give me an outlet that was healthy, while producing a result that would improve the situation. I've done the same with other so-called negative emotions and have found each time that I have felt empowered because I've actually given myself permission to integrate those emotions into the magical work. By providing an outlet that allows me to express them as a positive force of change in my life, I am able to be present with my emotions and allow myself to find resolution about what I am feeling.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Mikey
    Mikey says #
    OHhh I forgot the counter balances of love. Love...is a warm and nurturing emotion. It has alot of power, like a parent protect a
  • Mikey
    Mikey says #
    Hi, I'm new, so forgive me if this sounds peculiar. However, I was reading the post, and I couldn't help but put my 2 loonies in.
  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood says #
    Precisely my point. Thanks for commenting!
The application of identity to magic

In my previous post, I defined various elements of identity that I thought should be considered in choosing to work with identity as a principle of magic. However what I didn't do was explain, in full, how identity could be applied to magic. It's not enough to simply recognize identity as a principle of magic or to even define identity, but consider this: The various elements I used to define identity all play a role in our lives, and in how we interact with other people, and the world. Understanding this about identity is important, because if we are apply identity to magic, we need to understand that we are working with these elements of identity and choosing to use them in a conscious, purposeful manner to effect change.

For example, your family is one of the elements of identity I mentioned in the previous post. There are a number of ways you could work with family as an element of identity, and apply that your magical work. You could do internal work via meditation, where you explore your dysfunctional issues and trace them back through your family, from generation to generation. The meditation could be a pathworking where you traveled into each each ancestor and experienced the dysfunction as it showed up in their lives. It might help you better understand it as well as look at how you could break the cycle. You could apply this working to life skills you learned from your family as well, such as finances, or your work ethic. You could also take this working and apply it forward to your descendants. 

You could also do more practical work with your family by creating an ancestor altar and communing with your ancestors or asking for their aide in your spiritual workings. You might seek advice from them, or simply honor them with a ritual that celebrates their contribution to your life. And that's just two ideas for how you could apply the identity element of family to your magical work.

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Elements of Identity

In my previous post, I discussed why I thought identity was an essential principle of magic and explored what magic as an ontological practice might look like. In this post, I want to unpack identity further so that we can learn what makes up identity and how we can work with it as a magical principle. Some of what I discuss below can also be found in my book Magical Identity.

Your Family is one of the foundational elements of your identity. Your mother and father, and siblings (if you have any) provide you the initial experience of the world, as well as modeling behaviors about how to interact with the world. They pass down both their functional and dysfunctional behaviors, both in terms of how they interact with you and around you. It's fair to say that your identity is shaped by them for your entire life. I'd argue that your family is one of the more influential elements of identity and one that needs to be carefully explored in order to change a lot of your own behaviors. Your family also models financial and health skills to you. Even if they never explicitly discuss finances or health, they nonetheless provide you with standards that impact how you handle both throughout your life.

Your Genetics are another element of identity. Your health is determined in part by your genetics and knowing your family's health history can help you plan accordingly. Many of the diseases we deal with seem to have a genetic component, which can also shape your identity and how you prepare to deal with those diseases. But beyond health, your genetics also plays a role in your overall appearance, which also creates a sense of identity that shapes your life. 

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Exploring Magic as an Ontological Expression of Identity

A year or two back I remember telling an acquaintance that I was actively exploring identity as a foundational building block of magical practice. He looked surprised and told me that he didn't recall seeing much about identity in Western Magic ad what he saw in Eastern Mysticism pushed for getting rid of identity because of the karma that holding onto identity causes. He was right that there wasn't a lot of material about identity in Western Magic (I've found a couple authors who write about it, but otherwise it is curiously ignored) and he had a point about Eastern mysticism and its relationship to identity. Still I felt like something was being missed by not exploring identity and its role in magical work and I explained to him that I felt that getting rid of identity actually worked against the practical applications of magic, because magic is very much about being in this world as opposed to to getting rid of your connection to it.

My exploration of identity came about as a result of my dissatisfaction with standard definitions of magic, which are usually variants of Crowley's definition of magic. Those various definitions focus on doing magic, on applying magic to change the world according to the will of the magician, but I disagreed with that approach to magic and felt that there had to be something better out there. I shifted away from doing magic and instead focused on exploring magic from an ontological perspective, a perspective based on being and on identity, which also examined the relationship of a person's identity in context to the world and other people around him/her.

My current approach to magic is formed around the following definition: My identity is the ontological state of being that includes an awareness of cultural, subcultural, spiritual, familial, physiological, and environmental aspects of identity. My identity is also an exploration of my on-going agreement with the universe and how I manifest my identity is an application of that agreement to the interactions I have with the universe and the various other identities within it. If I want to change my agreement with the universe, I can use a practical system or technology such as magic to help me change my relationship with the universe, other entities within the universe, or my own identity. In other words, if I don't like my experience of my identity and want to change it, I apply magic toward changing my identity and its place in the universe, as well as the agreement I have with the universe.

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Eros, Movement, and Magic

In my previous post I discussed the elemental balancing ritual and explained how I'd moved from a traditional elemental model to a non-traditional approach to elements. With this post I'd like to share my work with the element of Movement as mediated by Eros.

I always get an idea of which element I'll be working with next about halfway through the year of the prior elemental working. In the case of movement, what told me it would be the next element was how I came across several references to movement in relationship to identity. Since I am continuing my work with identity as a principle of magic, I knew it was essential to explore movement in relationship to magic.

I've also been reading a lot of R. J. Stewart's work and in one of his works he discusses the relationship that Eros has to movement, and how movement is a primal force of the universe. Reading that struck me and I felt a strong sense of connection with Eros. I did a ritual to him, asking him if he was the entity that could mediate the element of movement for me and he indicated he could but I would need to get a statue of him if I was to work with him. I got the status shortly before the transition from the element of Fire to the element of Movement.

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A New Model of Elemental Magic

Since October of 2004 I've practiced a year long ritual called the elemental balancing ritual. It's a ritual that involves the invocation of an element into your life, so that you can work with it over the course of the year, in order to bring balance with that elemental energy and your life. Balance, in the context of this ritual, means that you working with the elemental energy and the behavioral attributes it represents in order to balance that energy and behavior in your life. For example, the element water is traditionally associated with feelings and emotions so if you feel disconnected from your emotions, you might work with water to develop a better relationship with your emotions. Of course you'll also pick up other aspects of water while doing the work, such as learning to be more flexible or discovering the value of stillness.

I chose to start this balancing ritual in October, because of Samhain which marks the end of the year, in a spiritual sense, and also because my Birthday is in October, but anyone doing this ritual could start it at any time of the year. I'll explain more about how to do the actual work below. I've also described this work in my book Inner Alchemy.

When I initially developed this ritual, I applied the traditional model of elemental magic to it, which means working with the five element. I looked at my life and asked myself where I felt there was a lack of balance and what elemental force would correspond to that lack of balance. I chose to work with Water because I felt that I had a lot of passion, but a disconnect from my emotions. It was a good choice and that first year's work helped me grow as a person and connect with my emotions much more meaningfully than I had before.

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The virtue of curiosity in your magical practice

One of the most important virtues a magician can cultivate is curiosity. While the old saying that curiosity kills the cat comes to mind, we should consider that such a saying really is a response to curiosity that favors the status quo. It discourages exploration in favor of keeping things the same. Such an attitude should be an anathema to the magician.

Curiosity is at the core of my spiritual practice. When I was much younger I was a born again Christian and I left because I realized that I couldn't find all the answers in one book and that allowing myself to be limited to what I considered to be a narrow perspective of the universe was not good. So when I discovered that magic was real I voraciously began to read books and I allowed my curiosity to explore and experiment with what I learned. Curiosity motivates me to discover my questions and answers and it is an emotion that I couldn't imagine being without.

I think that to truly make magic your own you need to be curious. It is not enough to read books and do the practices in those books, nor is it enough to learn from others and only do what those others have instructed you to do. While both activities can be useful for building a foundation, at some point you need to leave the nest and learn to fly. You need to take your magical practice and personalize it, making it your own, and to do that, it necessarily must be reflective of your interests.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer says #
    Well said! If you think about it, any seeker wanting growth and spiritual health needs curiosity. It's the only way to expand our
  • Carolina Gonzalez
    Carolina Gonzalez says #
    I couldn't agree more with your every word. I follow the same approach and give the same advice that you are giving here to my own
  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood says #
    Thanks Carolina! It's important to encourage curiosity...it's how we grow.

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
How to apply art to magical work

I've always been a creative person and that creativity has extended past writing to painting, singing, and other artistic pursuits that I continue to pursue to this day. And as with all my other interests, I'm always looking for ways to apply my artistic skills to my magical work. I figure that the art gives me another way to express my magical talents as well as my creative vision.

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  • Carol Frierson
    Carol Frierson says #
    Thank you Taylor! This came to me just at the right time! This may seem a little crazy but...I have never painted before but I ha
  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood says #
    Hello Carol, I'm glad this article helps. It's not crazy. I felt such an inclination myself at one time. Good luck!
Cultivating Relationships with your Spiritual Entities

When you've practiced magic long enough, you inevitably start to form relationships with spiritual entities, and much like relationships you have with people, its takes some work on your part (and their part) to create a healthy and sustainable relationship. There's also the question of how you form the relationship initially. There are some approaches to forming a relationship with a spiritual entity that I would find quite rude (these approaches involve commanding an entity to appear and do what you tell it to do), and other approaches I wouldn't do because I'd be concerned about how much power I was giving to the entity.

Personally I prefer a middle approach. I'm not going to worship a spiritual entity or deity and do what it says. If I wanted to do that I'd have stayed with the religion of my family. But neither do I believe in doing the medieval approach to evocation which involves summoning the entity and threatening it with other entities in order to coerce it into doing something. I figure why not just ask nicely and on top of that create a good relationship? I know, I know, some of you will say, "That sounds rather fluffy and ill-advised." But seriously why not simply dispense with all the theatrics and try and make nice? It's always worked for me and I've gotten the results I've wanted while also creating a solid relationship with the entity I've worked with.

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I've experimented with magic since I first started practicing when I was sixteen. I'd buy books at the local occult shop, voraciously read them and try the exercises out. Afterwards, I'd think about how I could improve the exercises or change them or experiment with them. I was never satisfied with other people's explanations of how magic worked. I'm still not satisfied with most of the explanations about how magic works, and that includes some of my explanations. That dissatisfaction, as well as an insatiable curiosity drives my desire to experiment with magic.

Magic is perceived by some as a spiritual force that complements their religious practices, and by others it is perceived as a practical methodology used to achieve measurable results that improve the lives of the practitioners. Still others think of it as a spiritual practice that allows them to commune with the world and the divine. Beyond all of that though it is a discipline, a field of study that many people contribute to on a regular basis. The challenge with any discipline is figuring out how you keep it relevant to the times and to the needs of the people.

When we look at magic as a discipline, we see that it is relevant through the diversity of the community. Whether its the reconstruction of a particular culture and its spiritual practices, or the melding of Eastern and Western magical practices, or the evolution of a given tradition as that tradition adapts to the times, there is clearly relevance in magic as a spiritual and practical discipline. So the question may come up: Why experiment with magic, especially if the practices we have already work? Do we really need to fix something that isn't broke? Aren't we just reinventing the wheel?

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  • Merle Moss
    Merle Moss says #
    The only problem I have with the idea of 'experimentation in magic(k)', is rigorously keeping the original intent clear and simple
  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood says #
    Hello Merle, That's a fair point to make. I find that applying a process approach avoid such slippage, because the intent is writ
  • B. T. Newberg
    B. T. Newberg says #
    Interesting. Thanks for this. What are your views on experimental methodology in magic?

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