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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How to Learn and Experiment with Magical Techniques

For many people in the Pagan and Occult communities, their initial journey into magic is one which is self-taught, with the majority of learning occurring from reading books. Even when you do encounter a teacher, you still may find that a lot of your learning occurs on your own, with the expectation that you will teach yourself and also discipline yourself to do the work. In my own experience, the majority of my magical education has been self-taught. I've only had one teacher show up in my life, and he's only appeared in the last couple of years, and I've been practicing magic for 21 years now. Whether you are just starting to practice magic or have been practicing it for a while, it's a good idea to develop your own process for learning and experimenting with the magical techniques you learn.  In this article, I'm going to show how I learn and experiment with techniques I read from books, as well discuss how you can apply the same process toward what you learn from teachers.

Right now I'm reading a book called The Sacred Cross by Anastacia Nutt, which teaches a stillness technique that I'm using as part of my daily work, and as a foundation tool for deeper ritual magic workings. In this article, I'm going to use my own journey in learning and experimenting with this technique as a case study to illustrate the process of learning. The process for learning and experimentation doesn't need to be formalized or tedious, but there are certain considerations that need to be factored in with the learning of any technique. These considerations are: your learning style, patience, carefully checking in with yourself, Integration of the technique into your practice, and Careful experimentation and modification of the technique. Let's look at each of these considerations in more depth.

Your learning Style: Different people have different learning styles. For example, with meditations my wife likes to have a recording of the meditation she can listen to. She is an auditory learner. I, on the other hand, don't need a recording to learn a new meditation technique. I can simply skim over it, commit it to memory and replicate it when I do the meditation. Your learning style may be something else altogether. It's important that you know what it is and how best you learn so that when you are studying a technique you can apply your learning style to it. In the case of my work with the Sacred Cross, as I've read the book, I've stopped wherever there is an exercise in the book, read the exercise and then having committed the essentials of it to my memory, practiced the exercise. I'll practice that same exercise for the next couple of days until I'm satisfied that I know it and understand it. Then I'll continue reading the book. With an auditory learner, what might be involved is listening to the recording until you know it well enough that you no longer need to hear the recording.

Patience: When you are learning a technique, its really important to be patient with yourself and with learning the technique. Too many people, when reading a book on magic, will skim past the exercises, instead of doing them or will do the exercise once or twice and consider it mastered. It takes a lot of time to learn a technique. The repetition is important because it allows you to not only learn the technique but also adjust to it and its effect on you. Whenever I get to a place in a book where the instructions for the technique are presented, I read the instructions and stop reading any further. I follow the instructions and do the practice until I feel that I understand it and I'm aware of its effect on me. Then I'll read further, because I'll be ready to dig in deeper on the subject matter and the technique. With the Sacred Cross I've been working my way through the book for the last month or so. I'm about halfway through it and at the time of this writing I'm learning both the long and short form versions of creating the cross. I'm learning both at the same time because the author recommends it, and I'm finding it helpful to be patient and really work with each variation. I won't continue further into the book until I'm satisfied I know each technique.

Carefully check in with yourself: When you learn a new technique, its very important that you check in with yourself. How are you feeling? How is your body, physical and energetic, adjusting to the technique? Does anything feel off or wrong about what you are doing? You should ask these questions each time after you've done the technique, so that you are sure you are doing it correctly. If anything feels off, stop doing the practice and look over the description and instructions for it. Was there anything you missed or left out? If yes, then you need to slow down and include everything. If nothing is missing (as far as you can tell) then start over, but do the practice with increased awareness and if you feel off again, stop doing it altogether. When I was learning a Taoist meditation technique a while back, I noticed that I was getting ill after doing the technique. I stopped doing it and got better and realized that something wasn't right in the technique or my execution of it. 

Integration of the technique into your practice: Once you've learned a technique you naturally want to integrate it into the rest of your practice. You need to think about where it'll fit in your practice. For example, with the Sacred Cross, it's a stillness technique that essentially sets up sacred space and time with a connection to underworld and overworld energies. I consider this a foundation technique, so I'm using it with my daily practice and before I do any ritual magic in order to create a state of mind that is most receptive and focused on the working at hand. Various techniques have their place in your practice and knowing where that place is can be quite helpful in doing the work you do.

Careful Experimentation and Modification of the Technique: If you're like me, you may like experimenting and modifying a technique. I always suggest doing this carefully, because experimentation with a technique brings with it potential danger if you don't understand the technique or what you are changing. There are reasons the technique is presented in the way it is and while some of those reasons may just come down to the teacher's personalization of the technique, some of how it's presented is usually done for good reason. Once you know a technique, examine it carefully and ask yourself what you specifically want to change. Then consider how changing it will change the technique and result.

In my case, when I change a technique, I usually change it in several ways. First, I look at what I can strip away. For example if a candle is included in the technique, I'll see if I can get rid of the candle (you usually can). What I strip away is usually optional. It's only needed because people doing the technique think its needed, but if you get rid of it, you can still do the technique without it. The second kind of modification I make is a personalization of the technique. I understand the technique and as a result I'll personalize it to fit my style of my magic work better. For example, a lot my non-anthropocentric magical work has involved getting rid of visualizations and props and focusing instead on the feeling generated when doing the working and using the feeling to guide me in the magical work. 

When you learn a technique from a book, which is how I've learned the majority of my magical practices, it's important to take your time and really learn the technique. Know it as an experience, instead of as a concept. When you read about a technique, you are learning the concept, but when you practice it and experience it, that's when you really learn the technique.

A word about learning from teachers: If you have the fortune to learn a technique from someone directly, it can be different, because what you are learning isn't just a concept but also experiential. Nonetheless you likely aren't going to have access to the teacher 24-7, so while you might initially learn a technique directly from the teacher, you may still end up reading a book with the technique and continuing to learn via what's written in the book. All of the suggestions above apply to what you learn and even if you by some rare circumstance have access to a teacher on a steady basis, ultimately you have to teach yourself because while the teacher can provide a construct of what to do, you have to actually experience it and make the technique your own. 

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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.

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