The Importance of Doubt in Magic
Article ID: 13024
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Grey Glamer
Posted: December 7th. 2008
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One aspect of spellcasting, which is seldom discussed in occult literature, is the role played by doubt and uncertainty. Most magical texts discuss the importance of belief, encouraging readers to cultivate an unshakeable belief in the efficacy of their spells, while doubt is cast as an obstacle to be overcome through willpower and experience. Believe in magic without fail, we are admonished, lest our spells fail us.
Certainly, doubt constitutes an element, which – left unchecked – can hamper and even negate our magical endeavors. Whenever we second-guess ourselves, we chance losing the laser-like focus so vital for casting spells. Nevertheless, in moderate doses doubt is not only tolerable, but also necessary for the practice of magic. Before we can see how doubt and uncertainty support magic, however, I should clarify what I mean by doubt.
First, there are two kinds of doubt that arise when one talks about magic. The first species is moral doubt, the doubt that asks what we should do. This doubt is the uncertainty epitomized in popular culture by the angel standing upon one shoulder, the devil upon on the other. Moral doubt is the pregnant pause before we take action, the moment when our conscience weighs both the nature and the consequences of the course we've plotted. These reflective pauses, during which we endeavor to decipher the dictates of conscience, exercise an important check upon the extremes of religious and social behavior, especially the mob mentality that historically provoked the Burning Times. Without such introspection, we quickly lapse into unthinking zealotry.
Clearly, moral doubt – doubt about what we should do – has its place within the human experience, and consequently within the Witch's Craft. It's the second species of doubt – the practical doubt that asks what we can do – which proves more difficult to reconcile with the practice of spellcasting. If magic constitutes a process whereby we effect change, goes the argument, then anything which questions our ability to effect change can only detract from the magical process. If magic were nothing more than the uniformly successful fulfillment of wishes, then such an argument might be regarded as axiomatic.
Magic, however, is much more than simple wish fulfillment. As Witches and Magicians, we often begin with spells for love or spells for money - We may even discover a certain satisfaction in the pragmatic uses of magic! – and yet over time such applications pale in comparison with those deeper motivations for studying magic, namely the cultivation of virtues like wisdom and insight. As our magical practice deepens, we begin to realize the universe answers our entreaties, though frequently through unanticipated means, and our focus turns away from the desires of the moment and towards the contemplation of the universe and our place therein.
It's during such contemplation we come face to face with practical doubt. When we cast spells for fleeting desires like love or money, often we can cheat doubt, pretending not only that our spell is certain, but also that we are certain our spell is certain. That is, we simply tune out any voice, internal or external, which says our belief in the efficacy of magic is irrational or delusional. Such an approach can work more or less well over the short term. The problem arises over the long term, where we begin to feel the cumulative strain caused by the cognitive dissonance between the belief in natural but unseen forces upon one hand and the default paradigm of materialism upon another.
As Witches and Magicians, we learn to step lightly from one paradigm to another, and yet we're still human beings living in human society; we never completely abandon those preconceptions instilled within us from birth, especially the pervasive conviction that our material world is the primary – and perhaps only – expression of reality.
The upshot of the argument is this: Try as we might, we can never completely silence the internal monologue that says our belief in magic is crazy. Indeed, the effort is generally counterproductive. The harder one works to ignore doubt, the harder doubt becomes to ignore; by focusing so much effort upon doubt, we actually strengthen the very thing we wish to banish.
How do we escape from this metaphorical Chinese finger-trap? The solution mirrors the counterintuitive means of escape from the literal trap. To quiet the storm of internal monologue, several schools of meditation propose a decidedly gentle approach. Attempting to calm the mind by forcefully imposing our will almost never works. Instead, we should acknowledge our random thoughts and then release them, gently yet firmly returning our focus towards our chosen mantra. During spellcasting, we should treat our practical doubts like any other random thought, as old friends whom we embrace before sending them upon their way. Paradoxically, this gentle approach allows the Witch or Magician to release doubt much more effectively than imposing the will.
There exist schools of magic, which teach, implicitly or directly, that practical doubt must be completely eradicated from the mind, and doubtless my approach will strike adherents of those schools as ineffective or even dangerous. My usual disclaimer applies here: My spells draw upon my unique magical paradigm, and because every occult student develops their own unique paradigm fashioned from their unique perspective, your mileage may vary. Still, our differences are healthy when we learn from one another, and with this goal in mind I share my own views.
An interesting phenomenon happens when we take time to acknowledge our practical doubts: We begin to realize doubt plays an important role within the practice of magic! Christian theologian Paul Tillich once defined faith as the state of ultimate concern, and within this context, doubt becomes necessary for faith. Without the possibility we could be wrong, we have no reason to gamble – and indeed cannot by definition gamble – upon the proposition which constitutes the object of our faith. Without the gamble, we cannot fully involve ourselves in our concern.
Empirical evidence leaves me pretty certain the Earth will continue spinning for the immediate future; while I honor the dance between night and day, I don’t invest much emotional or intellectual energy into wondering whether the dance will continue. My relative certainty that morning will follow evening essentially precludes the immense investment of personal energy, which characterizes the commitment we call faith.
Practical doubt – acknowledging the very real possibility we could be wrong – compels a commitment from the very wellsprings of our being. Yes, we could be wrong. Yes, the universe could call our bluff – and even still we push our humble stack of chips into the middle of the table, gambling on the existential hope we're not alone. It's within the gamble where we rise above ourselves, where we learn who we really are. And without doubt, we cannot gamble.
The gamble is crucial for the practicing Witch, precisely because every spell is an affirmation of faith in the Witch's magical paradigm. Practical doubt enables an emotional and intellectual intensity otherwise impossible, an intensity that empowers the spell. The occult scholar Aleister Crowley famously proposed that somewhere along the magical journey every Magician faces an abyss that must be crossed.
I believe human doubt constitutes just such an abyss, although contra Crowley, I would contend we step across dozens of miniature abysses over any given month. With every spell we cast, we confront – and hopefully overcome – all those nagging doubts about our magical ability. Our doubt never completely goes away; we just become better about making leaps of faith.
To deepen the pools of magical knowledge, we must constantly examine our magical practices. Too often, we allow anxiety to dictate the scope of our magic, and we suffer from anxiety not because we acknowledge doubt, but because we refuse to accept openly both the gamble of faith and the power that follows.
Third among the disciplines of magic is this: To Dare! Where there exists doubt, there also exists the potential for daring, the potential for faith, the potential for magic. May we always enjoy such blessings!
Nema. The Way of Mystery: Magick, Mysticism, and Self-Transcendence. Saint Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2003.
Tillich, Paul. The Dynamics of Faith. New York City, NY: Harper, 2001.
Location: Athens, Georgia
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