Understanding Magick: Metaphors Come Last

by Mike Sententia on March 10, 2014

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I see mages start with metaphors. “Magick is about energy / spirits / software / whatever.” They pick a metaphor, then explain magick with it.

Don’t. It’s a trap.

When I was 16, I drew a diagram about how magick influences events. Events are like a bowling ball rolling toward some wooden blocks — each block represents one possible future, and the block that gets hit is the event that occurs. You can influence events by changing the ball’s trajectory, or by stretching the desired block. I’d visualize blocks shrinking and bowling balls rolling as I did my magick.

The “bowling ball model” was useless, of course. Sure, it let me think about events, and tell my unconscious mind which event I want, but there are dozens of ways to do that. Belief, ritual, self-hypnosis. Communicating intent isn’t enough.

First, a few assumptions: There is an actual external world we interact with. Magick is successful when it changes that actual external world. And magick operates by some actual process in that actual external world.

Those are the basic tenets of direct magick. The basic tenets of science, really. Anyone not on board for that, this probably isn’t the blog for you.

A good model should describe the external world. It should tell you about the moving parts behind magick, so you can figure out new ways to move them to produce better healing techniques, more accurate luck, or whatever else you’re looking for.

The bowling ball model failed because the ball and wood blocks didn’t correspond to anything in the external world. There’s no ball that hits an event, and you can’t expand or contract events. Useful for communicating my intent to my unconscious, but nothing else.

You cannot save a bad model. You can only kill it.

Once you pick a model, it’s either right or wrong. The moving parts either match the external world, or they don’t. No amount of belief or clever argument will change that.

Most models of magick seem to fall into that category. They pick a metaphor, then use that metaphor to think about their intent. The mage might realize that he just picked a model out of thin air, but often, he acts like his components correspond to the external world, so we’ve all learned to be suspicious when anyone tells us they have an accurate model. It’s only sensible. When readers assume that I just picked software as my preferred metaphor, then randomly chose terms and ideas that sounded good, I know the reason. And in general, there’s no reason to think that software is a better metaphor than energy, or spirits, or bowling balls.

Now, I’m not bashing models. Sure, no model is perfect, and models only approximate the external world. But pointing that out and walking away is to shirk the hard work of improving our understanding. Which is the whole point: A better understanding leads to better magick.

But how do we get a better understanding? My answer: Explore magick using empty terms. Before I strengthened “ethereal muscles,” I activated “mental areas,” simply meaning areas of my mind that are involved in magick. Before I programmed “ethereal software,” I channeled “systems,” simply meaning a set of components that performs a function. I explored magick with as few metaphors as I could, focusing on how each component actually behaved, rather than how I thought it should behave.

Years later, when I started writing, I asked, “What metaphors suggest how we use this component?” The metaphors flowed from my understanding of the external world.

That’s the only way to come up with an accurate model: Start with observation. Model each part. Then make a cohesive model with metaphors.

The metaphor comes last.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

George March 10, 2014 at 11:23 PM

Great post! Lack of awareness when using metaphors can be a real problem; it’s easy to get stuck within the arbitrary boundaries of a metaphor and not realise it, because it seems to make internal sense.

I don’t think anyone’s magickal metaphors come out of thin air though – they’re usually a version of something that already exists in the culture at large, whether it’s like ‘the brain as computer’ or ‘magick as quantum mechanics’ or ‘atoms as billiard balls’ or something more subtle. Which is what makes it easy to fall into the trap: the common magickal metaphors of the day probably seem transparent, because they’re floating in the cultural metaphor ‘water’ of the time.

Another issue is that metaphors are a two-way thing: they inform your observation in the first place and so can become self-reinforcing. It’s not possible to truly approach a problem without some form of metaphor-baggage – even if it’s just ‘stuff is made up from parts’ (rather than fields, say) – so the self-checking can never stop!

Really, if we’re visualising something, we’re using a metaphor. Not easy to get around that one entirely. Perhaps your idea of signatures is a winner there, since it brings you back to what you’re directly experiencing directly.

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George March 11, 2014 at 12:39 AM

Aha, replying to myself:

“Really, if we’re visualising something, we’re using a metaphor. Not easy to get around that one entirely.”

Actually, I could be clearer here. The term “visualisation” is somewhat abused these days!

The distinction to be made is between ‘creating mental objects’ and ‘creating an image’. If we create a mental object, it may or may not have a visual aspect (even though many people commonly call that “visualisation” regardless). If we create an image, that’s not necessarily a fully formed object: we might just be thinking about an object rather than thinking the object into existence.

It’s the difference between creating a servitor and creating a theory or model about servitors…

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Mike Sententia March 11, 2014 at 8:00 AM

On metaphors drawn from culture at large: Yes, and this happens in science, too. Generally, ideas occur to people only after that meme is floating in the air.

Interesting point about “stuff is made from parts.” Yes, that’s an implicit metaphor I use. Thanks for pointing it out.

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George March 11, 2014 at 8:47 AM

Yeah, very true. Basically, the background to all our ideas has some pre-existing subtle form.

I’m surprised that the ‘field’ metaphor hasn’t been applied more rigorously in magick – aside from hand-waving ‘quantum-ish’ references which don’t count. The field notion collapses both time and space, and could be mapped to the direct experiences of gnosis or open-awareness.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s (admittedly controversial) ‘morphogenetic field’ idea, where all possible habitual forms are condensed into a boundless field, maybe has some legs. One could envisage creating mental objects corresponding to one’s desire (form) and contributing them to the morphogenetic field (source) via open-awareness.

Come to think of it, that little description pretty much summarises quite a few magickal approaches which don’t have an obvious causal sequence. Maybe they don’t need one; they cut straight to form-seeding.

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John W. A. March 11, 2014 at 2:09 AM

Hhmmm. Interesting.

Although I would like to point out that the Psychological Model doesn’t point out how magick causes any change in the physical world. It only covers how the mage communicates with his (or her) subconscious mind, and then proceeds to saying that the subconscious mind takes care of the rest (without explaining how that’s done).

In other words, it’s the only Model of Magick I’m aware of that doesn’t explain how magick happens at a physical level – it doesn’t even try. And I agree: Models of Magick are inherently bad, imprecise, unreliable, inconsistent things. But it does allow one to further their knowledge of magick, agreed. Getting rid of using a Model of Magick to go beyond the ITA-Gap (Interface-to-Action Gap), like with the Psychological Model, does help to remove Interfaces, Models of Magick, and so forth.

So I’d like to know: why is “Energy” a good metaphor, or one you’ve used so often?

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Mike Sententia March 11, 2014 at 8:54 AM

On psychological “model”: The answer isn’t to say, “Explaining the external world is hard, I’m not even going to try.” The answer is to roll up your sleeves and do it anyway.

On energy: I’ve thought about changing the term, actually. But, well, it’s a pretty standard term, and energy does power magickal structures, so I’ve left it for now.

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