Altered States of Consciousness and Magical Practice

Continuing on from my comments on animistic consciousness, I would also like to note a few more quotes from “Drawing Down the Moon” which relate altered states of consciousness to magical practice.

Aiden Kelly told me, “What really defines a Witch is the type of experience people go through. These experiences depend on altered states of consciousness. The Craft is really the Yoga of the West.”(Pg106)While “paranormal” events are extremely difficult to chart, or to repeat under laboratory conditions, much research has shown that the chances these events will occur increase dramatically during altered states of consciousness – in dreams, hypnosis, drugged states, sensory deprivation, deep meditation, and highly emotional experiences. Those who do magic are those who work with techniques that alter consciousness in order to facilitate psychic activity. (Pg154)In fact, almost all definitions of magic seem to use the word in connection with “will”, “concentration” and “attention”.(Pg155)This definition of equates magic with those techniques that lead to an awakened, attentive, attuned sense of being. Seen in this light, the various fads for meditative disciplines…are, quite simply, brief magical training courses that attempt (with more or less success and with a greater or lesser use of unnecessary and even harmful dogmas) to reawaken imaginative faculties, to increase concentration, attention, and self-confidence, and to facilitate a student’s ability to enter altered states of consciousness at will…the trappings surrounding Witchcraft and other magical systems can also be understood without mystification. Chants, spells, dancing around a fire, burning candes, the smoke of smell and incense, are all means to awaken the “deep mind” – to arouse high emotions, enforce concentration, and facilitate entry into an altered state. (Pg157)Much of this [workshops on shamanism and drumming] is wonderful and reflects the fact that the Pagan community is actually trying to explore ecstatic states. There is a misguided tendency, however, for anyone who has had an experience with altered states to consider him or herself a shaman. (Pg 431)

If we are honest enough to look beyond the semantics and examine these practices on a phenomenological basis it becomes clear that Wiccan magic is not entirely distinct from Buddhist meditation or even Christian contemplative prayer. Many other traditions utilise incense, music and pageantry to set the stage, all involve the cultivation of attention and concentration, and all value experiences of awakening and/or theophany. It would seem that humans are hard wired for these sorts of experiences and they are not limited to any one religion or spiritual pathway. For evangelical Christians who would seek to distance themselves from this I suggest you read a few studies on the hypnotic dimensions of revival crusades, charismatic worship and deliverance ministry rites. Again I stress many differences are largely semantic.

It is only by acknowledging this these commonalities we can begin to tease out the real distinctives of magical practice as it relates to states of consciousness.

Firstly, I draw your attention to the quote above which stresses the emphasis of the will in magic. This is diametrically opposite to Buddhist and Christian approaches where the emphasis is on transcendence self will through surrendering of ego. This, I would suggest, is the primary distinction between magic on the one hand and meditation or prayer on the other. (A note for evangelicals – under this definition, name-it-and-claim-it prayer is unquestionably a variety of occultic syncretism – chew on that)

Secondly, I note that the use of drugs is shunned by Buddhists, Christian, Sufis, and many other traditions as harmful to psychic development. Neo-Pagans appear to be out on a limb on this practice, though admittedly it is not core to their tradition or universally practiced.

Thirdly, the deity(ies) invoked are clearly different. Whilst Christianity acknowledges that the Spirit manifests in various ways, clear distinctions are made between the creator and creation on the one hand and the Spirit of God and lessor spirits on the other. Christians cannot engage with practices designed to invoke pagan deities without compromising their religion at its roots. Christianity offers a critique of injustice in society which precludes worship of any deity other than the God of restorative justice.

Once we start to clear the air on this though I think there is scope for conversation. Christianity offers clear challenges to Neo-Pagans on the above three issues, but alternately, I think the vibrancy of Neo-Pagan practices can and should provoke Christians to creative exploration within Trinitarian frames of reference.

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