The practical art of magic

Aleister Crowley, the magician and self-styled 'Great Beast', once described magic as 'the art and science of causing change in conformity with will': and most people would say that that's also an adequate description of technology. There are practical differences, of course, between traditional magic and technology, but no real structural difference at all.

Above all, magical operations are just that: operations on the world as perceived. They are concerned with doing something: not just talking about it, or believing in it, but doing it. Which may come as something of a surprise if all you've come across so far is the concept that belief in magic is an aberration of the mind. And in a way, it is: as we've seen, any change to a point of view, wandering around in imagination, involves a certain degree of 'insanity'.

But our interest, in this study, is in merging magic and technology - putting them both into practice. There are two sides to this: technology as 'applied science' has lost its magic, but gained in clarity; whereas magic, as a set of technologies beyond science, has become isolated in a world of its own, and has lost its sense of purpose in an everyday world, its sense even of being technology. Each side has its own traditions, its strengths and weaknesses, with much to offer to the other; and much to be seen beyond.

A sense of vision

The first skill we need to learn is how to see. Not just with the eyes: but with vision, with the 'mind's eye', like Kekulé's image of molecules as snakes, twisting and turning in the fire. Creating images - using our imagination - and letting those images return with more detail than we gave them at the start, we can learn to navigate our way through the swamp of ideas, and pick out those points of view which might be useful.

Let's start, then, with one particular image, from another of Idries Shah's 'Nasrudin' tales:

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground.

'What have you lost, Mulla?' he asked. 'My key', said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it.

After a time the other man asked: 'Where exactly did you drop it?'

'In my own house.'

'Then why are you looking here?'

'There is more light here than inside my own house.'

[Idries Shah, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin]

If you're looking for ideas, you're not likely to find them where they are not: 'discoveries are beyond the reach of reason'. To find ideas where they are, you need to look where they are; and, going back to the swamp analogy, that means that we need to get away from the platform for a while, for we'll find nothing new there.

So let's develop that image a little further. The description of science, of 'reason', as a solid platform is a useful one, because it implies safety - 'safety first' is a good rule in any technology, including those from traditional magic, so it's a good idea to have a known, safe refuge when things start getting a little insane. Once we know the platform, our safe refuge, we can move from it, and return to it in imagination at any time. So start by building your own image of this platform, this safe refuge:

In our earlier analogy, the scientific world-view was likened to a platform of inter-related points of view within the swamp. Imagine that you're on this platform, a solid, safe and fortress-like structure of impenetrable logic and unassailable rightness.

Look at the walls of reason around you: they defend you from the unknown world of the swamp outside.

Look at the walls around you: they also enclose you, preventing you from seeing the world outside from other points of view.

Let images arise - or not - as they like: let this world describe itself to you.

You want new ideas from outside of the fortress - there's more light out there.

Imagine that you can create a window in the fortress wall in front of you. As you imagine it, looking at the wall, the window appears. Just let this image arise by itself.

See what kind of window you have created, looking out over the swamp. This is your window, into your world.

Sunlight comes through the window; a butterfly flutters past. Through the now-open window comes a scent of wild flowers; a different world.

Come closer to the window, and look out. Describe to yourself your vision of other points of view, as you can see them out through the other side of the window.

Now close the window, and return.

This is a game called 'imaging' or 'pathworking', a classic tool of traditional magic now much in favour with the self-development schools. Like any game in technology, it is a tool with a purpose, leading somewhere - but only you will know where.

It's a useful skill to develop: a trained and directed imagination. If you're told that something you want to develop has been proved to be impossible, remember de Bono's phrase: 'proof is often no more than a lack of imagination'.

There's a knack to it, as with riding a bicycle or any other practical skill; so it may take a little time before you can move around easily in this world of your imagination. The point of this game is to put your imagination to use: daydreams with a purpose. Until you get the hang of it, you may find it easier to get someone to read these images to you, quietly and carefully, so that you can follow them in your mind's eye without the visual clutter from reading it yourself.

Imagine that you're on the fortress-platform of the scientific world again.

Return to where you created the window; notice any details that have changed since you were here last.

If the window is no longer in the wall, re-create it. Again, sunlight comes through the window; a butterfly flutters past; the scent of wild flowers comes through.

Note if anything seems to have changed; note if anything seems to be informing you of its presence.

Since all is well, open the window wide.

Look right out of the window; lean right out and look from side to side. Note in your mind what you can now see.

Move back inside: close the window.

Now change the window into a glass door, opening out onto ground level beyond the fortress wall.

You can open this door at any time. If you wish, open the door and look out again: though don't leave the fortress yet.

When you've finished, close the door, and return.

In imagination, you now have a door into a different world. In traditional magic, people approach this world as a 'quest': a place in which questions can be answered, and answers can be questioned. Before we go there again, build up in your mind, carefully, the details of something that you've been trying to think through - anything will do - and that you'd like to see from a different point of view.

Return to that glass door, in the fortress wall of the platform of science.

Quietly, and with confidence, open the door.

Before you go out, you see that there is a coil of rope beside the door, tied to a ring: a safety-line. With this tied to your belt, you know that you can return, on your own, at any time.

Tie the rope to your belt, and move out.

Take some time first to look at the walls from the outside, from a different point of view: look at any places on the outside of the wall that are in need of repair.

Then look slowly around you. You won't need to create the world outside, but it may need some help from you to give it shape and form. To help it, keep in mind the quest with which you came here.

Spend some time looking around at the edges of the platform, outside of the walls.

Look out into the distance, and see the old buildings of some abandoned parts of the platform, like astrology and alchemy and herbal medicine; they're in better shape than you thought, and there are people living and working there.

You can see people around, in the distance, but you do not meet them.

You are safe: you have your safety-line back to the fortress.

You came here with a quest in mind: take some time to note if anything about this quest comes into your view.

When you have seen enough, return back to the fortress.

Close the door; untie your safety-line; and return.

It's worth while writing down anything that comes to mind when wandering around in this imaginary world. If someone is reading these images to you, tell them what you see. It does not need to mean anything at present - although it's surprising how often the images arising from this game are immediately useful.

A couple of other points are worth keeping in mind. The first is that the door, although it may be on the same place on the inside of the fortress, may well open out onto a different place outside each time you go through - to enable you to look at things from a different point of view. The other is that you should not just rely on visual images: note any sounds, smells, sensations, the general 'taste' of what is going on. Although you create, by describing it to yourself, the loose structure of this world, your imagination goes on to fill in the details: and it's in the details that you'll find the information that you need for your quest, and that you can use when you return.

So before we move on, you might like to go back to the previous image, and look through it again.

Introducing the guide

So far, we've played safe. We haven't moved without a safety-line - just like the technologists in the swamp analogy. It's time we spread our weight a little, and moved out onto the swamp itself.

Again, we still need to play safe: so we'll ask for a guide. If you've read any classic magical literature, you'll no doubt recognise this part of the game. But to take a slightly different line from the classical one, we will declare that this guide is an aspect of ourselves: it is not something separate. if you like, it is an aspect of you that knows how to move freely around in the morass of different ideas and images - so it knows how to guide you, safely, from one view-point to another, to look at them and from them as you need.

Return to the glass door.

It is already open, waiting for you.

In the doorway stands your guide, waiting patiently. Note what form it takes; its form may change from time to time, but it will always be an aspect of you, to take you to where you need to go.

At first with caution, your guide leads you out over the swamp. Take some time to note how you move, what images you move through.

You make a short stop to rest at a well-restored building close by to the fortress: the world-view of astrology. Here things are seen not as cause and effect, but as events that parallel each other, different results of greater causes: 'as above, so below'. Look at the world for a while from this point of view.

Your path leads on to a tightly enclosed maze: the logic of the computer program we looked at earlier. You can watch as each program instruction passes by: note the circumstances under which each instruction occurs, look at things from the program's point of view.

It follows each instruction methodically, relentlessly, following the fixed paths of its logic; you watch it a while, and move on.

Your guide leads you now to show you another place, another point of view, which has some bearing on the quest with which you entered this world. This place is your choice; what this place means to you depends on you. You can spend some time here questioning the answers - whatever form they may take - which the place can show you.

You now return with your guide to the fortress, to the glass door.

Take your leave of the guide; close the door; and return.

We do need to be clear about the nature of this guide: it is very important to view it as being an aspect of ourse1ves. In spiritualist circles, where the same game is played in a rather different guise, the 'spirit-guide' is generally regarded as an entity separate from the participants in the game: yet whilst this does in some ways solve the problem of 'ownership resistance', I regard this approach as dangerous in the extreme, since it abdicates all control and responsibility to an unknown and undirectable but very real force.

This is not a trivial point. In the 'Philip' experiments in Toronto, a university research team invented a non-existent character named Philip, complete with an imaginary life-history, and then 'called up his spirit' in séance-style experiments. Despite its imaginary beginnings, the entity became real enough to respond with standard séance-type phenomena: rappings, table-tipping and even minor poltergeist events - this was even demonstrated live on television. Slowly, though, it began to have 'a life of its own', and in the end needed to be sent on to an imaginary 'next world', using something akin to an exorcism ceremony. All this from a character that had never existed in the 'real' world at all...

Since we're working in an imaginary world in this game, it's as well to remember that imaginary entities are real in that world - and, without some semblance of control, can, on occasion, be dangerous. Your guide is your choice, and your choice is also your guide: as the phrase goes, 'do what you will - but be very sure that you will it!'

A world of archetypes

Another way of looking at these 'entities' we meet is as 'archetypes': collections of aspects of ourselves, or even of places or objects or concepts, making up a describable 'personality'. Having personality, they have a kind of intelligence: you can ask them questions, and they can respond in their own way. You can even put yourself in the position of that archetype; if you like, 'be' that archetype; experience things from that point of view.

Beveridge cites several examples where researchers have imagined that which they are studying as having a personality, so that they could look at things from its point of view; and we've already seen a similar process used in debugging a computer program. In the magical field the process is referred to as 'invocation' - literally, calling within - calling up this specific group of attributes, of characteristics, in order to experience them. A common example of the use of this process is the skilled actor, who wears a part, a character, in the same way that we ordinary folk will wear clothing. The trick, having taken on the character, is to be able to put it down again... And that's where we rely on our imaginary guide for help.

These archetypes can be anything at all, and can be allocated any sort of name: a name that is simply a working label for a set of characteristics. In effect, this is the same as the computing principle of 'if you don't know what it is, give it a name': an eccentric magician friend, for instance, once invented 'a pair of very sticky goddesses', Uhu and Araldite (which happen to be the names of two commercial glues) for invocation by his students. It's more practical, though, to pick on a known name or label, and build on that.

While the best-known labels come from the magical tradition, with its pantheon of gods and goddesses, angels, demons, devas and the rest of the magical menagerie, we can choose labels from any tradition or field of study: we create this imaginary world, so the labels are ours to choose. Anything goes. So we'll select two to enquire of in our next excursion into the swamp: the Hanged Man from the Tarot cards, a classic symbol with a not-so-obvious interpretation; and that shadowy concept from present-day physics, the Quantum, the minimum 'packet' of energy.

Return to meet your guide at the glass door.

Together, you move out over the swamp. If you can, keep track of your path through this maze of images and ideas.

After a short time, you arrive at a clearing in the swamp.

Here you see an upright wooden frame. A young man is suspended upside-down from the frame, with his head just clear of the ground. He is certainly alive and well; relaxed, even. One ankle is tied to the top of the frame, and the other leg crossed over behind the knee. His arms are behind his back: we cannot see whether they have been tied there, or if he is simply holding them in that position. Despite this peculiar predicament, his face has an expression of calm detachment, a kind of distant awareness; you can sense a glow, almost a halo, around his head.

Move closer. Take in the details: the shape of the frame, the clothes he is wearing, and so on.

Move closer still: move right inside this image. See things for a while from this strange upside-down point of view.

Now return to be beside your guide, looking again at this figure from the outside.

Move on to another place, a place of total but simultaneous contrasts: everything, it seems, is both black and white at the same time.

At first, you cannot focus on anything: everything is in movement, yet not in movement. It seems you can tell where something is, but not where it's going; or where it's going, but not where it is. Always, but simultaneously, one or the other.

Each movement or not-movement is a single packet of energy, a quantum of energy. As an object, a 'particle', it is static; at the same time, as energy, as a 'wave', it is movement, and only movement. For a while, be with this flow and not-flow: resolve this impossibility of opposites by being the quantum.

Now return to yourself and your guide.

Together, you move on, back to the fortress.

Take your leave of the guide; close the door; and return.

You've probably noticed that we've made a definite point each time of closing the door: almost a ritual. Part of it is plain tidiness, and an element of safety as well - after all, you don't want some imaginary demon from your imaginary world wandering around loose in your fortress, do you? - and part of it is ritual, to reinforce the sequence, to make the whole process automatic.

Another way to understand ritual is to see it as a pre-planned sequence of events, a sequence with a purpose, everything just so. Rituals are an essential part of any skill, in some form or another: the pre-take-off checks in an aircraft, for example, become almost an automatic part of any pilot. The responses and reactions we develop when we learn to drive a car become quite unconscious, quite automatic - and are faster as a result. You pick them up, select them, as you get into the driving seat, almost as a matter of ritual; and you put them down again when you leave.

Being automatic, but with awareness above, you see immediately any break in the sequence. The trick is to avoid being stuck in the ritual, doing it for its own sake; but rather to learn to see its use.

The main function of rituals in the magical tradition is to set up some particular state of emotion or awareness: magic, as we have seen, can be described as a technology of the mind. Like the checklists of the pilot, or the pre-operation wash-and-dress of the surgeon, a ritual of any kind sets up specific conditions - a specific context, if you like - in both the operator and the 'real' world as they intend to perceive it. Its other function, more prominent in the conventional technologies, is to highlight any break in the sequence, anything which doesn't fit: so you can see and act on this changed context accordingly.

So a ritual is a functional tool, like any other: it may not seem much like a screwdriver or a spanner, of course, but the intention behind it is much the same.

**Getting unstuck

Magic and technology are above all practical arts; so this game that we've been following does indeed have practical use. Its function is to provide a solution to 'stuckness', where you can't think of a solution to a problem: the world has given you an answer, so what on earth was the question that that answer replied to? In that kind of situation you cannot be reasonable: the answer is outside of the neat web of logic that you've so far built. You're floundering around, trying to think of the fact, the bit of information you've missed, that would give you the clue you need. As Pirsig put it:

I keep wanting to go back to that analogy of fishing for facts. I can just see somebody asking with great frustration, "Yes, but which facts do you fish for? There's got to be more to it than that."

But the answer is that if you know which facts you're fishing for you're no longer fishing. You've caught them.

[Robert M Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance]

And that applies to any skill; indeed, we could say that the ability to find out new facts about the work and yourself and put them to use is a practical definition of skill.

When you're stuck, you need some inspired guesswork. And that's what our game is: practical inspiration. If you're stuck, describe to yourself, in detail, what you think the problem is. Then go to the fortress, go through the door, and ask your guide to take you to meet someone or something that can show you some new light on the problem.

Do it. Oh, and don't forget to close the door when you return...

Inspired guesswork

Let's look at this a different way. If you're faced with the problem, as maintenance crews are, of knowing that there's a leak somewhere in a mile of buried pipe, where would you start? The obvious way - the scientific way, if you like - involves digging up the whole mile of pipe: not exactly the quickest way of tackling the problem, but certainly thorough. Before you spend a large amount of time and effort on the old 'brute force and ignorance' approach, you could try a little inspired guesswork.


First, make a pair of dowsing rods out of a couple of old coat-hangers, and hold them as shown in the illustration. They must be able to move freely; the trick here is to hold them just below the horizontal so that they can balance easily, yet move a lot if your wrists rotate a little.

Now we play a game similar, in its way, to a computer program. You declare - verbally, if you like, but more usually just to yourself - that the rods will cross over when where you are (marked by your toes) coincides with what you're looking for. Build up in your mind an image that what you're looking for is the pipe: describe it to yourself in the same way that you looked at that imaginary orange earlier; describe it to yourself in the same way that you framed your 'quest' when visiting the imaginary world beyond the fortress. And that image now matches what you're looking for: so do it.

Play with it. Remember about 'beginner's luck'... the real trick is to get there, and stay in that state.

Finding the pipe is one thing.. what about the location of the leak? One way is to add another instruction to the 'program': that the rods will open out, rather than cross over, when you're above the leak. The skill here is to learn to keep yourself open: as in the world beyond the fortress, build an image, but note how the image can itself add details for you to see and use. As Pirsig's analogy puts it, you're 'fishing for facts' about the world: work on the world, and listen to what the world tells you in return.

And if it 'didn't work'? Well, try again; or rather, play at it again. If it still doesn't want to play, there's always the 'brute force and ignorance' method - you haven't actually lost anything by trying it out.

The tool for the job

One of the points we do need to learn about these tools from the magical tradition - or any tools, for that matter - is to use them in an appropriate way. If you're working on a world that you know, it's usually easier to use a way that you know. It's only when you're getting stuck, or the method, the tool, that you're using begins to be inefficient, unreliable, inelegant, inappropriate, that you need to look elsewhere. And you need to keep your awareness wide, to let the world tell you that what you're doing, the way that you're working, is indeed inefficient and the rest.

Dowsing, for example, has limitations: it depends perhaps too much on your own skill to be regarded as a reliable technology, a reliable tool. For most detection work, you're better off using some ordinary physical means of detection: a metal detector, for example. But metal detectors become unreliable if what you're looking for is more than a few feet below the surface; they can only find specific materials (and not the plastics used for most water-piping of these days); and they can go wrong in quite surprising ways.

My favourite example of this was an incident during the building of the Humber suspension bridge. Careless parking of some pre-cast concrete bridge sections in the store area crushed a main water supply pipe. Unfortunately, this was the supply to the Hull fish market, which had to be closed down immediately. The break was, of course, somewhere in the several acres of the storage park: no real indication as to where.

The plumbers from the docks arrived with their toolbags and their fencing-wire dowsing rods at the same time as a van-full of electronic search equipment from the Water Board. The technicians looked at the plumbers' equipment with disdain: very crude, they thought. But when they turned on their sensors, all they could pick up was Radio Humberside - which was right next to the field. By the time the technicians had disentangled this little tuning problem, the plumbers from the docks had not only found the leak, but mended it...

On the other hand, I've often found dowsers using their skills in quite inappropriate ways, looking for things by dowsing when a physical tool - or a little common sense - would do the job better. One example that always annoys me is when people ask me to wave a dowsing rod over a glass of water to 'prove' that the rod will react when over water. But I already know that it's water: I can see that, without needing any fancy apparatus - so why bother?

The most likely end-result of parlour-games like these, games without a purpose, is that they don't work, they don't prove anything - because there's nothing to prove. 'Proof' is something that science can concern itself about, whilst our only concern here is with technology, the use of tools: and the only value of a tool - any tool - is in its use.

Building a toolkit

If we view ideas and techniques as tools rather than as 'facts' to be proved true or false in an arbitrary logic, we can go back through the literature of the magical and mystical traditions again with a very different intent: to put them to use. In technology, in this magical technology, anything goes: anything is 'true' if it can be put to use in practice in our perception of the world.

See astrology, for example, not as a collection of facts or fictions, but as ideas and conceptual tools to be put to use. On some occasions, they are useful; certainly astrology's key concept of 'as above, so below', of parallel events without causes, is useful to help us move away from our current culture's obsession with a spurious concept of cause and effect.

Its images and archetypes are some of the most descriptive around; and in a good practitioner's hands, modern astrology can be a remarkably accurate tool for describing the processes of a person's constant transitions from one state of being to another. As a tool to describe events, it has always been dubious at best; but as a tool to describe the context behind events, that's quite a different matter. Knowing its strengths and weaknesses, we can use it: but in a way that should be efficient, reliable, elegant (if you like) and appropriate.

The same goes for other tools, other games. An amazing amount of work has been done, and then forgotten; researched, written down, checked and re-checked, archived - and yet never put to use, simply because it didn't fit with the rest of our views about what technology is and does.

For example, we do not know how psychokinesis works, and probably never will: but we do know enough about how it can be worked - how to create and apply the energies involved - to create ways in which we can put it to use. From Batcheldor and Brookes-Smith's work, the principles are stunningly simple: use a little dim light (to get over 'witness inhibition') and a small group (to get over 'ownership resistance'); use a 'joker' (a member of the group who fakes things up a little) to give some encouragement; then go off to change the default reality for a while. The practice, of course, is a little more difficult: reality is never quite that simple!

Another example: alchemy. This has always concerned itself with transmutation of elements in both inner and outer worlds: so it could perhaps be applied to give us a solution to the problems of nuclear waste bequeathed us by a short-sighted view of technology as 'applied science'. Levitation too, perhaps: there is a surprising amount of sense in Douglas Adams' wry description that 'the way to fly is to throw yourself at the ground - and miss'.

With an awareness of magic, we can put chance and coincidence to practical use. And we don't need to worry about trying to invent causes for events, to make them 'fit' reality - because we've invented that reality in the first place. We all know those magical occasions when everything was 'meant' to work, when all the right people turned up at exactly the right time: now we can put that sense of magic to use, as part of our more magical approach to technology.

Again, we can direct the process, the chances, the coincidences: but we cannot control them. If we try to, the magic just vanishes. This seems always to happen if one person in a team claims that sense of power for their own, or claims to have a monopoly on 'the truth'. As one friend put it, 'a quick trip up to the astral to grab a slice of the action' tends not to get very far: that sense of magic is a little more elusive. As with any technology, we need to be aware of whether what we do is efficient, reliable, elegant (if you like) and, above all, appropriate.

If 'anything goes', it's up to us how we do it, up to us to decide what is an appropriate tool for the job. Using the technology of mind that we can find in the magical tradition, we can turn on its head that paradox of 'things have not only to be seen to be believed, but also to be believed to be seen': by moving, with care, our definition of that 'default reality', we can, it seems, create any world that we want.

But what kind of world do we want? Perhaps more to the point, what kind of world do we need?

Before we can create any new world, before we can make real some imaginary utopia, we need enough vision to see what really is needed; we certainly need more vision than the blinkered arrogance of our present 'applied science'. We need, if you like, a better awareness of the miraculous in the ordinary, to bring the magic of life into our technology; and to reduce our arrogance, of 'God made in the image of Man', we need, perhaps to be a little more humble in our approach to nature and its realities.

And, in the magical tradition, there's no stronger image to show us the foolishness of our current 'wisdom' than the Tarot's symbol of the 'wise fool': the joker in the pack.