What is Magic?
One of the questions that is most commonly discussed in witchcraft is:
What is Magic?
It's so commonly asked that an overview of all the different answers would take at least a book to do any justice to it. Perhaps a series.
What it isn't
One of the most common definitions, and one of my historical favorites is Crowley's
[Magick is] the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will
In recent years however, that definition has felt wrong to me for a couple reasons.
It is predicated on the Thelemic idea of Will
A lot of my training was colored by Thelemic principles. Indeed, The Brotherhood of the Phoenix, is a thelemic order in some respects. (I personally do not think that is true, but that is a conversation for another time.) As a result of that training, the idea of Capital W Will has been bouncing around in my mind for years now. And the older I get, the less I buy it.
I don't buy it because I no longer believe that my life on the earth is a mission in a spiritual RPG. My body, feelings, and mind are not the avatar of my higher self or my Holy Guardian Angel, directed to level up for the completion of some greater mission.
I have will, but I do not beleive there is an intrinsic spiritual distinction between what I choose to have for dinner, what career I pursue, and what I believe to be my mission in life. It's not that there is no distinction between these things, or that they are all of the same magnitude. It's that they are separate things of varying magnitudes, but they all belong equally to me.
Like my relationship with the elements, I'm happy to have been acquainted with Thelemic Will, and I'm happy for the people who feel that it serves them, but it doesn't serve me anymore.
It implies that magic only occurs as a product of directed will
The other major problem I've developed with the Crowley definition of magic is that it simultaneously cheapens and rarefies magic while erasing a lot of what I feel is magical.
It cheapens magic because it implies that all acts of Will are magical. I think that this makes taxonomic sense but is stretching the colloquial and collective idea of magic past the breaking point into meaninglessness.
It rarefies magic by exalting it with the vaunted idea of Capital W Will, implying that real magic can only be performed by someone in touch with their WILL. I.e. Real magic can only be done by a Thelemite.
Both of those things bother me on their own. But when you combine them you get a Thelemic class-ism that takes the magic out of magic. Magic ceases to become a mystery and becomes an operation. It takes magic away from the inspired, the gifted, the children, the mad. It takes the very nature of magic as a source of transformation and exploration and turns it into something impotent to inspire.
So what is Magic then?
I don't have a definitive answer, but I have some ideas. I was having a conversation with friends earlier this evening, and I came up with the following definition, which I think is an excellent start:
Magic is condensation of belief transforming our experience of the universe.
note: my original wording was slightly different, but this version captures the spirit better
What does that mean?
It suggests what magic is, but now necessarily how magic operates. One of the things that almost all definitions agree upon is that magic creates change. But what does change look like? How do we measure change?
I propose, with this definition, that magical change is subject to the translation of our experience. In essence:
If you can't experience a change, then it didn't happen. If you do experience a change, then it did happen.
It's important to note that this places magical change squarely and by definition in the camp of subjectivity. It does not preclude so-called objective change, but indicates that subjective change is the important aspect.
I like this definition for a number of reasons:
It encompasses all meaningful change
I didn't include the word meaningful in the definition because I feel it complicates the sentiment without need. If our experience of the universe is changed, I believe that is by definition meaningful. The impact here is that any act which creates meaningful change in your life could be considered magical. Basically:
If it feels like magic, it is.
It allows for magic to be spontaneous, irrational, and uncontrolled
Not all magic is staid and structured. Magic happens to us and around us. It is driven by the spirit world as well as the physical, emotional, and analytical worlds. This definition makes space for that. Belief (which can be the product of experience as easily as directed change), that transforms our world. Whether we initiated that transformation or are transformed by forces beyond us.
If our experience is meaningfully transformed, it is magical. And while I know many Thelemites would disagree, magic is sometimes a wild uncontrolled thing. The vision of magic as something systematic and predictable is one that I reject. Magic is part of the experience of life, and like life it has the power to surprise us.
It acknowledges that belief is central to observation
Our senses are notoriously easy to trick. We like to think of our physical senses as objective recorders of the world, but we know that they are faulty, and our interpreter (our brain) is not able to process and manage all of that data instantaneously. Our experiences are the result of stimulus that we BELIEVE to be true because we trust our senses.
Any understanding of magic needs to include the understanding that it is our experience of the world that measures the change, since we have no other tool of measurement.
It brings my attention to the most important part of magic and life
Experience. Not in the Cosmic RPG way, but experience is where we get meaning. Our understanding of everything in the universe is based solely upon our experience of that universe. Even our agreed upon objective observations are communicated and passed down to us via experience, either of the observation itself (primary) or of a communication of the observation (secondary).
Magic is fundamentally the alteration of our experience by means of belief.
At the end of the day, my proposition of another definition of magic isn't that important. I've put it here because I believe with every fiber of my being that we need to create language and explanations that are integrative and permissive.
One of the problems with many other definitions of magic (including Crowley's) is that they include language which governs not just what magic is, but who can do magic. It's not always explicit. The Crowley definition implies that magic can only be done in conformity with Will. This implies that anyone who is not attuned to their Will can not do magic.
My definition is not perfect. This is the first version of it. But it is fundamentally permissive. It does not assume any knowledge or skill on the person practicing or experiencing the magic. It allows every person to have their own gnosis about magic based on their experience of the world and their experience of transformation via magic.
So that's where I'm at with that one.