Occultism is probably my weirdest/least mainstream/most rationally questionable hobby and also it's something I've been interested in my whole life.
I think there's something to it.
I often feel very weird as a 30-something business professional telling people I kinda sorta believe in magic which sounds ridiculous at face value. But I’ve also had some pretty weird experiences.
Some quick background so you know where I'm coming from: I grew up Lutheran pre-internet with a heavy emphasis on believing in God, miracles, angels, and a personal connection with the divine. Spent a lot of time being presented with stories of impossible things as True Truth. While I no longer believe in the literal truth of some of those things, it creates an important conceptual backdrop for the lowest level of my formed personhood that always leaves me asking, "Well, this is silly... but what if?"
Also relevant is that my whole family has a tongue in cheek belief in occultist practices that we all poke fun at but kind of also warily respect.
My grandma talks to spirits and has a relationship with a luck spirit she calls "Lady Luck." She's also won two cars in her life. My uncle got very deep into this stuff when he was younger and experimented with it a lot. He claims he got creeped out when he actually got a servitor spirit doing stuff for him and backed way off for a while.
He's now a respected lawyer and still incants privately pre-trial.
When I was a child, hearing these stories, I was fascinated by them and also didn't really take them credibly. But a little maybe. Even back then I liked to have personal proof, which is eventually what killed my faith in Christianity as presented to me. I experimented with books from the library and "spells" I found on Geocities sites in the early days of the internet, which was mostly your standard witchcraft/glamour nonsense. I'd light candles and try to see if I could make my eyes change color and stuff. This never worked. I also prayed a lot to my personal conception of God back then, which I still do now but far less frequently and I have a very different view on the purpose this serves.
As a child it was things like "Please let me get married and be happy blah blah" standard kid stuff.
But I went through most of my teens and early twenties after those experiences and after losing my religion with the opinion "this is all nonsense and people who believe it are delusional morons"--I would tease my grandma and feel very smart to not indulge in magical thinking.
My interest in the topic didn't wane though. I spend a lot of time (even now) wondering why and how so much energy and writing and attention gets spent on topics with no actual impact on the world. Are humans just really dumb and optimistic and like lying? Yes and no, I think.
In my early 20s I revived my research into occultism with a MUCH more mature and thorough approach. I read a lot about Western Ritual Magic and dived deep into some of the core books like Israel Regardie's work and Aleister Crowley's stuff.
Basically trying to make sense of what they were saying, what purpose it might serve in one's life, and whether it was all complete nonsense or whether there might be some deeper truth there. There are some really interesting people who believe in magic, or at least ritual.
I also enjoyed reading fiction with some more interesting and mature takes on occult, like The Invisibles by Grant Morrison. Did you know he's a practicing occultist who believes that writing King Mob's story predicted events in his own life? Wild.
Or that the story of that comic series was supposedly given to him by supernatural entities which instructed him to share it with the world? I don't know how seriously he takes his own claims but it's fun to think about. I really enjoy some of the conceptual framings of these works, like the 93 93/93 thing @default_friend just pinged me with, which means "Love is the law, love under will."
This resonates with me and matches my self-conception and brand too, obviously. I'm all about love. After Regardie and Crowley my research led me down some Chaos Magick tunnels; Robert Anton Wilson and and Leary and McKenna, which dovetails nicely with my interest in entheogens and their role in divine communion (if valid, I think so).
I did a bunch of Reddit research and ended up reading a lot of shamanic theory and psychonaut thinking, as well as picking up books like Prometheus Rising and other classic Chaos texts.
And of course there's all sorts of interesting accounts of mystics and religious figures communicating directly with and receiving messages from divine/supernatural sources.
I have a hard time believing it's all made-up or mental illness. Something is happening there.
And of course like any good amateur scientist, I did plenty of my own experiments with all this stuff. I think I'm as vulnerable as anyone to have a tendency to remember what works and forget what doesn't, so I don't fully trust my experience. But it's been weird.
My best results from playing with the occult have been impacts on my own life as a result of ritual focusing in various ways. There's a lot of hindsight bias here, and you should take all of these claims with the note that even I don't fully believe that what I did mattered.
A few example stories that I've either done or run into:
When I was 27, in New Orleans, a street Tarot reader gave me a bunch of nonsense. But she also very insistently told me that an unusual pair of initials was someone important to me in my life. I told her that those initials weren't important, that I didn't know anyone with those initials, and that she was just wrong. And she continued to insist she wasn't.
Then my friends pointed out they were the initials of my (then) boyfriend who later became my husband.
When I was 31, I had been suffering from a very challenging medical/psychological problem for over six years that was causing a lot of distress and which I had sort of given up hope on fixing. I'd tried therapy, medication, CBT, all kinds of stuff. Nothing worked. I decided to invoke some sigil magic focused on resolving the problem, activated my sigil via a burning ritual, and forgot about it (this is how simple sigil magic works).
Six months later it resolved itself one day (permanently). Kinda blew my mind.
When I was 26, I was having a very hard time meeting anyone I liked and wanted to date and had kinda given up on that too. I accepted it and performed a personal focusing/prayer ritual to bring someone great into my life.
Wound up with my future husband six weeks later.
You could say this didn't work because we eventually got divorced, but being married wasn't the point. That was a massively enriching and rewarding relationship that changed me for the better and which I will always cherish, even if things are different now.
I have smaller variations on these stories which also worked well to help me achieve small personal victories and desired emotional states, and a few examples of cases where they didn't achieve the desired outcome but still pushed me in the right direction.
A thing I struggle with a lot is whether those rituals ACTUALLY worked. Would I have wound up with my desired outcomes anyway? What does "magic working" actually mean? I did a thing, tried to produce an outcome, outcomes happened.
You see people talk about this being the genesis of a lot of magical thinking problems. People see patterns in stuff they tried and then see results they wanted and forget the stuff that didn't work and boom, you have people believing made up nonsense. Also, given my background, family, and openness to experience, I'm probably unusually vulnerable to this kind of magical thinking pattern-seeing.
I want to believe it on some level. That makes it easier for me. And good things have always come easily for me. High luck stat. Maybe this is also just my tendency toward optimistic framing and systems-thinking being a powerful life tool and being above-average charming/persuasive to succeed in achieving things I want. It's hard to attribute outcomes to any particular detail of your life.
But I actually think it's more complicated than getting lucky or having outcomes line up with the intended impacts of my rituals by coincidence.
I think it's about focusing personal power. Now we're getting into VERY woo woo territory, but stay with me. I've always felt like I have a strong sense of personal power, or energy. Hard to explain without going off the magical thinking deep end.
I seem to be able to manifest things I want at an unusually high success rate. Caveat with all my prior claims about bias, obviously. But it's like an energy I can FEEL in my body. Call it ADHD, mania, whatever if you like, but even when I'm down I just feel this massive sense of personal potential. I think it sort of radiates when I'm really feeling it too. A lot of people tell me I have unusual "presence."
And this isn't a "look at me I'm cool and charismatic" claim, I feel cringey even saying that, but objectively I do sort of have this commanding/captivating presence that works well for me in situations where I need to get something done. A lot of founders have this too. I think everyone has this personal sense of energy to varying degrees and in varying flavors and its where we get things like people talking about auras or energy or affect. See my other thread on vibe.
My current take on why magic works (when it works) is that it's a way to tap into that personal energy and focus it on outcomes that subtly influence you in subconscious ways and draw you toward your desired outcome via guiding your conscious actions. This is a kind of boring and mundane and super common claim that you've probably heard a ton of times before: Norman Vincent Peale, The Secret, positive thinking, affirmations, et cetera.
But I'm dissatisfied with their description of the mechanics because it's too simplistic.
A thing that drove me crazy about the whole The Secret craze was that the only thing keeping you back from riches and success was that you didn't believe it should come.
And that you'd just start getting checks or love or whatever by believing you would. That's dumb. Also this is how people get into mindsets that open you to very victim-blamey methodology. "Oh, why are you so sick? You're obviously not wishing for health hard enough. Yeah I know it's HIV but really it's your fault."
Cruel, crude, simplistic, wrong.
So I have this working theory that goes as follows:
1) People have varying levels of personal spiritual potential to manipulate outcomes in their world
2) Even if you don't, focusing on your goals is helpful
3) Ritual can help you harness and direct the energy you have
This provides me with a semi-satisfying framework for why lots of people might not be able to "use" magic even if they try, either from not having enough or not knowing how to harness it correctly, and then go on to disbelieve in it.
I mean obviously this also leads you down self-affirming theories of personal significance and delusions of grandeur confirmed by your "personal spirit energy" or whatever, I won't deny that and I won't deny my own tendency toward wanting to believe that.
So just take this as a light-hearted proposal for a conceptual framework that MIGHT explain some things about why there's so much disbelief and misinformation and why other people swear it's real, whether or not any of it is true and correct.
Because in my experience, some of the most important parts of being able to "harness" that energy are as follows:
1) genuine belief in your personal power (or in some source of power, personal or supernatural)
2) intense focus during a ritual to heighten emotional resonance
I think a lot of people who can't "get magic to work for them" fail on one of those two points.
Either they don't really believe in what they're doing (even a little belief, tempered by skepticism, is sufficient, but if you think it's nonsense it won't work), or they're insufficiently focusing their energy because they're not engaged enough in whatever their ritual is.
If you feel like you're just lighting candles or burning paper, you're not really emotionally engaging with the exercise. When I burn sigils or conduct a personal prayer ritual or do a Tarot reading, I take a moment to clear my mind and center myself and handle it with an immense amount of solemnity. I focus my intent and fully engage in the moment. The emotional resonance for me is intense. And there's a certain amount of "directing my energy" into the task which sounds REALLY insane (I know how crazy this thread sounds) and which I can't really explain but is like... hmm.
It's kind of like something I feel in my heart that I gather together in a focused moment and mentally push into the ritual with a lot of serious intention to spark or power or bless the moment.
I visualize this as channeling a golden beam from a personal power aura.
That same "golden aura" is kind of how I visualize the personal energy I was talking about carrying earlier too. Like a very bright light source I'm always carrying around with me, available to tap into as needed.
Anyway, that's what I do, and this approach to ritual focusing has had surprising and consistently beneficial outcomes in my life that I do attribute to ritual even though I'm not supposed to as a rational human.
I don't know. I do it. It works for me.
Now, I'm also keenly aware that use of entheogens correlates with weird beliefs about aliens and machine elves and spiritual entities and stuff, so maybe I'm just crazy from doing drugs.
But until some experiences in the last few years, I hadn't done that many drugs. I only had one experience with any class of entheogen for the majority of my adult life pre-30, so I don't think this is me getting corrupted by mushrooms or something.
It's possible I'm just crazy enough to hold the beliefs without that too. But also I've been pretty successful and pretty methodical in my approach to this stuff and I'm not quite willing to just shake my head and be like, "I guess this is where I happen to be nuts" and shrug my shoulders.
And lets not forget that for thousands of years we took this stuff seriously enough that we KILLED PEOPLE who were suspected of being able to create reality-distorting outcomes. Rational adults like you and me were doing that.
I think because of the highly personal nature of occult practice and the variability of successful practice rates and the nature of the practices requiring personal belief and the fact that you need to sort of fumble your own way into the tools really hampers belief in it.
Which of course makes it rarer for people to actually be able to experiment successfully with it--they're primed to disbelieve that they can produce outcomes via spiritual means.
You have to have aptitude, belief, and willingness to actually engage.
One of the most interesting lessons in my life was how WRONG I was about a lot of things I grew up believing to be impossible. I tell people as often as possible that life will always surprise you and you know less than you think. I have all kinds of weird half-baked theories about why that might be, but over and over again in my life I've been surprised by how much is actually possible to achieve/do/manifest that was unexpected.
And of course in the wake of all of these crazy claims about magic and focused intent and energy, this is still a very important question: How DO you entertain these ideas without going overboard and building into some kind of narcissistic psychosis?
Because none of this is especially logical. The methods and experimentation are, but what on earth could the mechanism be? It doesn't make a lot of sense.
I could present all kinds of wild theories but they violate Occam's Razor and would sound REAL out there. The best approach I've found, like most things in life, is to be playful with it. I take it all half-seriously. Like, I simultaneously believe it works and also laugh at myself believing it works.
I can do my little rituals once in a while and not go off the deep end too far. I can accept that it doesn't make a lot of sense, is pretty silly and makes me look pretty silly, but also just do it as a fun hobby and still genuinely believe that it produces good outcomes in my life without caring whether it ACTUALLY does. Something halfway between magician/shaman and jester. I mean, what IS the stereotypical magician archetype if not part fool and trickster, even of herself?
And I also think there's a lot of unexplored territory in culturally held concepts of shared symbolism, subconscious pushing toward outcomes, and the capacity to affect other people's personal energy with your own in the world around you. It's all very fuzzy and personal. This is the kind of stuff you can't really package and systematize. You have to fumble your own way there (if you want to) and then decide if you believe it or not. And it's perfectly okay to think this is all nonsense!
But I honestly don't think there's any harm in believing in it, either, as long as it's not your first-line defense against illness or your primary strategy for success or you expect to be able to call down lightning bolts on your enemies or make someone fall in love with you.
I don't know. Maybe YOU can do those things. But I don't think I can. And I'm not too interested in trying.
But a healthy appreciation for realizing that you don't really know what you're capable of goes a long way here. There are few things as powerful as genuinely believing in your own ability to accomplish whatever you want to make manifest in your life.
Do what thou wilt.