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Exploring Magic as an Ontological Expression of Identity

A year or two back I remember telling an acquaintance that I was actively exploring identity as a foundational building block of magical practice. He looked surprised and told me that he didn't recall seeing much about identity in Western Magic ad what he saw in Eastern Mysticism pushed for getting rid of identity because of the karma that holding onto identity causes. He was right that there wasn't a lot of material about identity in Western Magic (I've found a couple authors who write about it, but otherwise it is curiously ignored) and he had a point about Eastern mysticism and its relationship to identity. Still I felt like something was being missed by not exploring identity and its role in magical work and I explained to him that I felt that getting rid of identity actually worked against the practical applications of magic, because magic is very much about being in this world as opposed to to getting rid of your connection to it.

My exploration of identity came about as a result of my dissatisfaction with standard definitions of magic, which are usually variants of Crowley's definition of magic. Those various definitions focus on doing magic, on applying magic to change the world according to the will of the magician, but I disagreed with that approach to magic and felt that there had to be something better out there. I shifted away from doing magic and instead focused on exploring magic from an ontological perspective, a perspective based on being and on identity, which also examined the relationship of a person's identity in context to the world and other people around him/her.

My current approach to magic is formed around the following definition: My identity is the ontological state of being that includes an awareness of cultural, subcultural, spiritual, familial, physiological, and environmental aspects of identity. My identity is also an exploration of my on-going agreement with the universe and how I manifest my identity is an application of that agreement to the interactions I have with the universe and the various other identities within it. If I want to change my agreement with the universe, I can use a practical system or technology such as magic to help me change my relationship with the universe, other entities within the universe, or my own identity. In other words, if I don't like my experience of my identity and want to change it, I apply magic toward changing my identity and its place in the universe, as well as the agreement I have with the universe.

As you can probably tell this definition is quite different from the standard definition of the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with will. It's a definition that recognizes that being trumps doing. Being is where doing originates from, and doing is formed by the state of being a person exists in. Most importantly if the state of being doesn't agree with the applied doing of magic, the applied doing of magic will fail, or the result will be sabotaged because the identity or state of being won't be in alignment with it. This fundamental realization helps the magician understand the value of doing internal work and balancing any magical act with the internal work.

An ontological approach to magic explores the principle of as above, so below by integrating identity into the spiritual work a person does. Instead of trying to divorce ourselves from identity and reach some higher level of existence, the ontological approach recognizes that the spiritual work needs to be done with a person's identity, but that a person may not fully recognize or know his/her identity either. Thus for example, exploring identity in context to one's body can be very revealing in terms of understanding cultural biases as well as working through personal beliefs about a person's body. Instead of trying to dissolve the essence of ourselves, we choose to work with the dysfunctions of our identities, while also retaining a connection to the world around us...not as an attachment, but rather as a form of liberation that opens us to experiencing new definitions of the world and its relationship to us.

A lot of internal work is an intrinsic part of my work with identity. Inevitably each of us will encounter our demons and dysfunctions and if we can't learn to work with them and change them, we'll discover that they define us and our sense of identity as thoroughly as any other factor mentioned above. Thus it behooves the magician to meditate and work with those dysfunctions, dissolving them and putting the energy and emotions into more beneficial realizations of identity that not only help him/herself, but also the world in general. In my next post I'll discuss some elements of identity in more detail and describe how you can work with them to define your identity and its relationship to the world more proactively.

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Taylor Ellwood is the author of Pop Culture Magick, Space/Time Magic, Magical Identity and a number of other occult books. He posts about his latest projects at Magical Experiments. He is also the managing non-fiction editor of Immanion Press. Taylor lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two kids, as well as 7 cats.

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