Occultist, Heal Thyself
Magick, the Occult and Mental Illness
Recently, a post came up in my Facebook News Feed entitled Occultism and Mental Illness: Returning Magic to its Healing Roots. It addresses the intersection of magick and mental illness in both the past and the present, exploring the questions of causation:
1. Does occultism trigger/exacerbate mental illness,
2. Are many people attracted to it because of existing mental illness?
3. What is the proper use of magick, of setting of intentions?
4. And, briefly, could the occult be harmful to people with certain mental proclivities?
Seeing the issue out there in writing hewing so closely to the issues that I want to cover, but from an (apparently) outsider or at least general perspective, the article stirred me to write from my own viewpoint. This is a risky proposition, given various stigmas attached to mental illness. I wrote and published the following post, initially on my blog, Hermekate, but the number of posts I could write about the hurricane that is magick-meets-mental-illness is extensive—well worth a dedicated focus here at The Way of Witch. Many thanks to Nikki for the opportunity and the honor of making this a reality.
The Problem of Perspective
I appreciate a lot of what Frater Entelecheia, the author of the abovementioned post, had to say. Though I recognize that his point of view is rooted pretty firmly in a specific magickal worldview built on some assertions that don’t necessarily represent the views of everyone in the occult community. I also get the strong impression that, like many other writers through the years who have urged caution when it comes to mental health and occultism, he may not have struggled personally with these issues to the same extent that many people have.
I could be wrong, but often when I read such things, there are various observations and comments that indicate the author is admonishing the mentally ill from the outside, as a “they/them” or “other,” as opposed to a “me/we.” There are certain things I just can’t imagine that an occultist who has personal experience dealing with their own mental illness would ever say; there may be insight and valuable advice to be found from an outsider’s perspective, but these warnings often lack the tone of understanding and empathy that would come with firsthand experience.
On the one hand, this is worthwhile because people who deal with mental illness can benefit from an objective viewpoint. That’s part of why we often seek therapy. On the other hand, it can do a disservice because there are aspects of mental illness that can only be properly understood and contextualized by someone who’s been there. I find that this is part of why many people in therapy stop seeing their therapists. The best of intentions can’t stop certain advice from sounding downright obnoxious, or at least feeling that way when parroted repeatedly by a person who is even slightly out of touch with the issue.
Since occultism itself can’t be fully understood by someone who doesn’t actually practice, it seems doubly important that somebody who has personal experience with both mental illness and occultism address this, and that’s one of the things I feel personally inspired to remedy on this blog. It informs my entire practice as well as my worldly pursuits (it is for similar reasons that I am studying to become a counselor).
From what I’ve observed, my entry into magick was unorthodox. It seems to me that a lot of people start by researching the subject, perhaps initially out of curiosity, the way a student would approach, say, math or history. First comes study, then comes practice. I did this backwards, having been shown and taught magick by a friend of mine, and only cracking books on the subject years later. This “inside-out” approach probably has a lot to do with why I resonated so strongly with the Left Hand Path when I discovered it. The magick I was taught was grounded in an “energy manipulation” theory that resembles practices like pranayama, tai chi or reiki–it was very “hands-on” and depended less on discursive reason and more on intuition, sensation and perception.
The other major aspect to the magick I learned was spirit communication, and I was very young – 12 or 13 – when I first started working with spirits. I sensed their presence, “saw” their forms in my mind’s eye, and experienced their voices as a telepathic phenomenon that sometimes came across in discrete words, but more often involved direct transmission of entire ideas or concepts.
As Frater Entelecheia observed, many people approach magick for the sake of personal advancement of one form or another. This is another way in which my path differs from that of most people I have met; when first working with my teacher, the primary motive was curiosity, but once I started talking to spirits, the emphasis shifted to that of understanding what the hell was happening to me. “Making stuff happen” was neat too, but I wasn’t all that motivated by learning techniques to manifest my desires. I was fully aware of the implications of “hearing voices,” and I voraciously devoured as much reading material as I could find that addressed different metaphysical, psychological and spiritual possibilities–i.e., “Is this legit, or am I nuts? And if it’s legit…what is it, really, and how legit is it?”
Aside from technique and theory, many people are very interested in occult history, and seem to process magickal ideas through the lens of the people who wrote all the books and founded all the orders, through their terminology and ideas. I am a terrible historian and have always been more interested in extracting the essence of things than knowing whom to credit with which idea or term.
Working with Spirit and Navigating the Traps of Belief
Over the years, I’ve adopted and worked with many different models of reality. I adopted several different models as beliefs and in so doing, learned firsthand about the pitfalls and limitations of belief. Open questions initially frightened me. Since my goal was to get a handle on what I was experiencing, the urge to nail everything down into a neat little system was strong. Indeed, I’ve fallen into several of the “traps” that occult authors warn about, but I also kept my mind just open enough to pull myself out of each and every one of them. I’m talking about some downright embarrassing stuff that I will nonetheless force myself to write about here once I get a feel for the best way to approach it.
I have thought of my “spirit guides” as objectively extant beings from other planes of existence. I learned a lot from them directly by embracing the notion of them as spiritual entities. I have also thought of them as aspects of my own psyche, and learned even more by embracing that model. Most interestingly, the spirits themselves have worked within both modalities. That is to say. when I thought of them as actual spiritual beings, their teachings and ideas molded themselves into that paradigm, and when I thought of them as aspects of my psyche, their ideas were expressed in those terms.
Even so, I found upon extensive reflection that the ways in which they explained themselves to me in both instances were not actually contradictory. The spirits themselves encouraged me to remain open to both possibilities and to develop a theoretical framework that synthesized both into a single model–a tall order that is by no means finished despite my having carried on for 20+ years, and which may never be complete. I alternated at times between being more attached to the spiritual model and the psychological model; being comfortable with a “both/and” perspective is a much more recent development.
Once I started looking at things that way, the spirits made even more sense to me and could fit into existing magickal models (one fits the role of “Holy Guardian Angel,” “Augoiedes” or what Jung would call the “Self;” one fits into the role of what Jung would call the “Anima,” or what tantric Buddhists would call the “dakini,” and one was a damn dead ringer for Jung’s Shadow, including the fact that said being eventually went away after years of hard inner work, taking its pernicious influence with it).
When you’re dealing with the mental health implications of things like hearing voices, you’re in territory that points to the possibility of severe mental illness such as schizophrenia. Aside from being mindful of that possibility, I have dealt with depression and anxiety in the context of what can only be honestly described as a mood disorder, which means that regardless of what my “voices” actually are, I am by definition covered by the term “mentally ill.” This raised the stakes, and gave me pause for considerable doubt as to the wisdom of delving further into occultism. I walked right the hell away from it all on more than one occasion, but always found my way back to it.
The warnings from writers like Israel Regardie were stark, and I thought it wise to err on the side of caution. However, I also challenged them, because of things like the Special Olympics and people of various talents who overcame physical disabilities to participate in activities that everyone told them they were too disabled to enjoy or do well. I figured the same might be true of mental illness. Despite the admitted risks, I am very glad I ignored those warnings, because I honestly don’t know where I would be right now if I hadn’t pressed on.
I can see the possibility for some people of getting permanently side-tracked or of falling into beliefs that are delusional or even dangerous, but the perspective and understanding at which I eventually arrived has served me in countless ways. Through the doorways that magickal study and practice have opened for me, I’ve managed to turn what many would view as a disability into something that works for me and has very often proven to be an advantage rather than a hindrance. This raises another bone I have to pick with people who pontificate from outside about the “folly” of practicing magick while mentally ill:
One of the ways you can tell that a person probably isn’t speaking from firsthand experience (I’m not addressing Frater Entelecheia directly here although he does make the below distinctions in his post, and if it doesn’t apply to him, awesome) is when they draw all sorts of lines that are nice enough as models, but that overlook a great deal of nuance that is obvious to people who have lived through it themselves–like the way they classify “white and black magick,” and their thoughts on approaching magick selfishly vs. altruistically, as if the two were mutually exclusive–because they aren’t. They so, so aren’t. This is just as false as most, if not all dichotomies.
The Occult, Mental Health and a Healing Path
While I challenge the viewpoint of mental illness as an outright disability (at least as applied across the board), it would be disingenuous of me to deny that it comes with obstacles. I am a proponent of celebrating neurodiversity, but I also recognize that due to my mood disorder, I have a hard time with certain situations and tasks that (for lack of a better term) more “normal” people handle with aplomb. Absolutely. Because of this, the line between being self-serving and serving others gets blurry: To be of the most benefit to others, I have to be selfish first, making sure my needs are being met so that I stay relatively balanced. A huge part of my magickal practice has been personal work that could be glibly described as “getting my shit together” so that I can actually help other people. After many, many years, I’m finally getting to a place where a clear path is unfolding that is allowing me to turn all of that navel-gazing and self-interest outward. I have become strong and integrated enough that what so many occult writers characterize as a liability or a weakness is now a potential strength.
I could not have done this if I had listened to naysayers. It should be pointed out that despite this, I actually agree with Frater Entelecheia that magick is not for everyone. I suppose I consider myself fortunate that my mental illness takes a less severe form than it does for some people, and also that my attitudes about approaching the occult have led to outcomes that are not guaranteed for others who approach it differently–but that is true whether or not a person is mentally ill to begin with. The same is also true in areas outside of occultism. Mentally ill or not, occultist or not, every person bears the responsibility of understanding and working within their unique limitations. I get that. However, I still feel that when people who don’t fall under the category of mentally ill make these observations (the very definition of which is a whole other ball of wax that I will probably address in its own post eventually), important parts of the picture may be absent, and the matter is nowhere near as black and white as some people seem to think. The territory of occultism looks very different from my perspective than it does to someone who has always been fairly balanced emotionally and mentally, just like the territory of the workplace, the home and the damn grocery store.
On a final note, I’d like to express appreciation for the fact that occult practice (and not merely practical magick/sorcery, but the kind that incorporates mysticism and/or psychological themes) is meant in part to intentionally destabilize the psyche in calculated ways so that it can be reintegrated and transformed. I understand that because of this, obviously, people who deal with mental illness seem to be more vulnerable to mishaps, with the reasoning being that we’re already likely to be more unstable to begin with. On the other hand, I’d also point out that when a person lives with certain instability every day of their lives, they may actually be better equipped to navigate the more stormy psychological waters of esoteric practice because they have stronger sea legs, so to speak.
We’re used to the oddness and the uncertainty, and for many of us, ambiguity is second nature. This isn’t always the case, and some people may really be more vulnerable due to a pre-existing mental illness, but I think the opposite possibility is one that is often overlooked by people who don’t live with mental illness. We are often much sturdier than we are given credit for. It takes all kinds, doesn’t it?
I guess my bottom line is that everyone should be careful–perhaps some more than others, for reasons including, but not limited to, one’s mental health–but if you live with mental illness and feel moved to embrace occultism, don’t be discouraged by people who opine that you should back away before you get hurt. There’s a middle ground that I, as an occultist with a mood disorder, don’t think gets enough press. With that said, I will echo Frater Entelecheia’s words, which mirror the chief advice I would often receive from my anima/dakini/or maybe delusion: Follow your heart. It knows better than your head or any external authority ever will what is right for you.