It's been almost exactly three months since my last research update and I have been a very busy lady--although my focus has been on business and work rather than primary occult research as much as I would like.
During this period, the primary work I've done has been mostly with tarot (always), some exploration of IFS techniques with many similarities to magical exploration, and the podcast interviews I've done with @danielmingram and others.
Despite not reading a lot of new books right now, I've had a lot of time to reflect on and digest what I've learned to date about magical theory. My team of researchers is still happily chugging along with over 40 classical books on magic summarized, which I've skimmed some.
Once I ebb and flow my way back to this project as a focal point, I'll be well positioned to begin my meta-survey on the content and integrating that with all of the other observations I've made. But I think I'm ready to make a few tentative claims based on what I know.
All throughout this research process two of my core questions have been 1) how does this work (if it works) and 2) what are the limits of what it can do?
I don't think I'm much closer to #1 than when I started (though I can spin narratives that feel interesting).
But I feel that I have a much better handle on #2 than when I started, which helps me draw some boundaries.
All claims made here are tentative and speculative (as always) and I'm very open to being surprised and wrong about any of this.
So the more I talk to people about what they've actually experienced with their own eyes, the more I've come to believe that the broad category of things we'd call "magic" (ritual magic, chaos magic, etc) are unable to produce immediate physical manifestations in the moment.
There's a LOT of nuance here though and I want you to be very careful about putting words into my mouth.
I'm not saying "magic isn't real" or "magic can't produce effects." What I mean is that whatever the mechanism, the causal impact of focused intent is subtle or delayed.
This means that many of the powers popularly attributed to magic in pop culture or even in books by practitioners should be understood metaphorically or as having more subjective effects than what would be easily demonstrable and convincing to a skeptic.
I'm reminded of my discussion with @jameslkent about shamanic warfare which takes place in a mental/spiritual framework and which you have to sort of "buy in" to participate in--but yet can have real impacts all the same.
Another thing that this reminds me of is how IFS allows you to play-act with different parts of yourself as "other" to achieve healing from trauma. This also takes place on a mental plane and could be considered "fake" or "nonsense" and yet has a demonstrable impact.
But I'm also not making the claim that "magic" is entirely subjective or confined to the realm of the imagination. I do not believe that those with magical or spiritual practice are limited to their own consciousness in terms of influence.
My current (constantly evolving) take on what magic "is" is that it's playing with alternative mental models foreign to your normal way of perceiving or thinking that can create tangible shifts in your relationship to yourself and the world around you.
And that this is a two-way deal--you can affect the world differently than normal, and the world can affect you differently than normal. To the extent that this produces material effects a third party can witness, I hypothesize that this involves manipulation of probability.
Probability manipulation is a pet theory I've been kicking around since I started and it's still the best thing I've got that neatly ties a lot of the weird external stuff that can't otherwise be explained together without breaking the known laws of physics.
There is a lot of subtext (and sometimes plain text) in magic that the magician is the author of their own reality, and I think that there is truth in this for every individual: that which we will has better odds of coming into being for us (compared to random).
This can sound REALLY crazy or REALLY not crazy depending on how you conceive of it, but it can be as simple as "you're more likely to go after and succeed at things you want." I just think that we may have slightly more influence over this than we realize. Manifestation.
And I mean this in a 100% woo sense. I'm not talking about chop wood, carry water, get rich. I mean that if you want to get rich and you perform rituals and prayer and focus your intent and have talent for it, your odds may be much better than if you didn't do those things.
I have absolutely no basis for this claim and can't prove it, and thus, it's not especially useful to you from a rationalist perspective. But this is a concept that gets repeated over and over again in both magical and spiritual texts and appears to actually work.
This claim is maddening to cynics because it disallows them from proving it. You can't genuinely focus your intent 100% on a desired outcome while being cynical and self-doubting that it's real. This also makes it a sticky trap. Not much better than "take it on faith," right?
Trying to resolve this tension is something I think about a lot and I'm still muddling my way through. Daniel and I talked about cynicism toward magic being a reasonable evolved protection against its influence, and this resonates with me.
"If you don't believe in it, it can't hurt you" is another one of those subtext things you get with magical discussions, but I think there's more to it than just frightening ourselves. This is why people say opening yourself up to the "magical world" can be dangerous.
This also neatly explains why magic might work best in secret, if there are no disbelieving wills to counter the desired effects.
For those of you who are new followers, please take all of this with a speculative grain of salt. This is about exploring possibilities.
This framework of "magic is about enacting intent via playing with altered mental states" can be thought of as sinking your hands into the goopy mess of reality and pulling out things you want by sidestepping your normal limitations.
I have no idea HOW this might work.
But I've seen a lot of evidence that suggests it CAN work, and unfortunately almost all of that evidence appears to need to be experientially derived. There is nothing you can do to persuade a cynic in the moment of apparently acausal effects of ritual.
If you're a student of classical magical theory, what I'm saying here probably sounds sort of familiar, and it's because I've wandered along and come to the same point as others in that "you only get to see it happen if you want it bad enough to go try it yourself"
This is DEEPLY dissatisfying for obvious reasons to those who'd like a more empirical basis for a discipline, and I have to apologize that I don't have better evidence or tools to show you at this point in time. I may one day have a solution for that, but not yet.
But what I'm finding (now that I've been at this focused study for the better part of a year) is that I feel like even I'm brushing the limits of what I can understand or experience without more direct practice. You can only get so much from reading and talking to people.
I don't think magic is especially unique in this regard, though! Imagine trying to write a moving poem or a complete working SAAS website having never actually done it before or seen examples of one working, but rather only reading people describing the tools and methods.
We don't HAVE a formalized discipline around this (at least not in mainstream popular culture that's widely accepted). Religion serves this purpose, but religion isn't taken nearly as seriously as it once was, and many people laugh at prayer more than woo.
But getting back to my point about magic being about accessing some "metaphysical tooling" to influence both yourself and the world around you via altered brain states, I think we see tons of evidence of this.
Ingram literally wrote the book about this via meditation (MCTB), which is one way to open yourself up to abnormal states, and the entheogen/psychedelic overlap I've discussed before is another way to get yourself there. It's about how you're able to perceive the world.
This could also explain why many people report a synchronistic overflow period in the wake of a psychedelic trip (which literally lifts your filters on existing thought structures and lets them resettle). I'm skeptical that this is residual chemical misfiring.
And also why sometimes people report physical or weirdly synchronistic impacts from dreams (which is another place we appear to be able to access that weird brain-space that enables whatever reality manipulation it enables).
This also dovetails neatly with Daniel's advice that if you want to experience magical effects you have to super-amp your ability to focus (which is also in line with classic ritual and chaos magic advice to get your meditation/focus very very honed).
In Liber Null Peter Carroll makes the argument that meditation and focus is basically magic 1001. Almost every major practitioner claims this.
And yet people who have never even attempted to sharpen their focus in this way are quick to dismiss it all as nonsense.
I've observed enough evidence that I'm satisfied that there IS a "there there," but I have similarly not amped my focus enough to get more than glimpses of the possible (though I have had weird glimpses at this point).
It is on my list of upcoming projects to do this.
If you look at what Crowley says about enacting your "True Will" and think about reaping the benefits of self-knowledge and internal consistency and having a clear understanding of what you want in life, you can start to build a model for magic as a mental catalyst.
But a catalyst that actually does more than what people usually mean when they say it "focuses intent on meeting your goals." I think it's about unmuddling yourself and actually moving you closer to your _actual_ ideal life.
Through some not-yet understood means. You see flavors of this idea in the grifter press all over from "The Secret" to "Reality Transurfing" (a recent take on manifestation out of Russia) and I think it's commercialized and over-simplistic for the most part... but not wrong.
Nor do I think it can be adequately explained by confirmation bias or survivor bias.
Chaos magic is a whole discipline based around "do what works" and what's weird is that if you try it, you will often discover that it does deliver results more than not.
Again, sorry--I know you'd love to see my homework on this and I wish I could prove it to you. All I can offer is hypotheses and theory.
You gotta dabble if you wanna see. It's the ultimate "mess around and find out" discipline.
There is no evidence I can offer you that will satisfy you the way firsthand experience in altered states that appear to manipulate not just your reality but consensus reality will.
I am aware this sounds like crazy grifter babble. Unfortunately, it is what it is.
This is one of those situations where it's hard to tease out chance and perception from actual manipulation. But defaulting to "it doesn't work" seems as erroneous as defaulting to "it does work" when you haven't actually followed instructions.
And as I've explored numerous times on the podcast, trying to align on what "working" means is VERY slippery. You can't A/B test your life because it's linear from your perception.
Again, I'll bring us back to IFS and point out that it might seem really weird to put yourself in a head space where you conceptualize and other different parts of yourself for healing, and yet it CAN be really healing.
Placebo effects produce real medical results.
When people say "every act is an act of magic" and then do something incredibly mundane to illustrate it, it's a poorly communicated concept. I would prefer to present that as "we all manipulate reality all the time."
We do this via a combination of physical, mental, and emotional signaling that we're sometimes not even aware of--by affecting others with our presence, physical or otherwise.
It doesn't seem like a stretch to suggest that our capacity for this might be larger than we think.
So to summarize where my thinking is at right now:
1) We have the capacity to manipulate reality (and it often looks very mundane)
2) We can do this better with focused intent and natural talent
3) The external shifts are subtle because it bumps against others' world models
I think @AdmiralOPG recently asked me for a breakdown on my understanding of ritual recently, and I still maintain that ritual is useful primarily as a tool to heighten emotion and focus and provide guard rails for veering off course in altered states
If you just parrot the words and actions, you aren't really performing the ritual. You're not serious enough. Too much doubt. And this is where a lot of people go "I tried a spell and it didn't work, therefore magic is fake." Expectations and focus are both out of whack.
This is also why ritual magicians think Chaos magic is risky and stupid, because it doesn't provide those guard rails. It's a very punk approach to magic that kind of sneers at the possibility of harm in a nihilistic sense.
I still prefer ad-hoc Chaos magic to formal ritual but that says more about me and my risk tolerance and being lazy than it does about the efficacy of any particular method.
The intent and outcome is ultimately what's important in any spiritual practice like this.
What I see in my broad, high level surveys of the literature summaries my team is doing is a repetition of those themes across history--focus, intent, subtle outcomes. Interaction with "others" in mental/spiritual realms.
When you look at it from a meta perspective like this, you can start to conceive of all of these trappings as different lenses for presenting the same core concepts in different disciplines.
All roads lead to Rome (or Roam, in the case of my magic DB).
It literally doesn't matter whether we call it "the ethereal realm" or the "spirit plane" or "imagination land" if it yields outcomes and information that's useful to us.
Arguing over semantics to decide whether it's "crazy" or "legitimate" seems like a red herring.
If we ignore the boxes and labels we draw around these concepts and simply pick your preferred method and focus on the core disciplines of focus, awareness, and intent, there appears to be the possibility of actual manifestation of desired results.
My next forays into this won't advance my understanding of it at all unless I take the next step I discussed earlier and really focus on amping my concentration.
I do still think there's a lot of value in aggregating and summarizing the research we're doing into a consolidated theory of magical practice that's a little more focused and cited than this rambling brain dump, but in terms of experiential understanding I gotta go do it.
But the more I reflect on what I've learned to date and the more I read, the more I'm persuaded that all of this was a VERY roundabout way to come back to "the only way to learn more is to practice."
Of course, my tarot cards told me just that at the outset.
I think I've mentioned this before but when I started down this weird little path last year my initial tarot spread told me practice would help a lot and study/theory would confuse me with conflicting voices... which has played out exactly so.
If I recall correctly my draw for meditation/focus was the Ace of Cups, by the way, which is also dead on and was a green light to do more of that.
I ignore the cards and here I am, having taken the very long way to arrive where I should have started (and was starting).
In any case--all of this still continues to be very interesting and I have every intention of pushing this forward and continuing to pursue it. Once the desert base is rolling I'm hoping things calm down and I can do some Fire Kasina in my sandy solitude.
And I'll continue to post thoughts and observations as I update my models.