On Keeping the Occult Occulted

I’m extraordinarily lucky in my occult practice that I live as a free adult in my ostensibly secular country, without the control or necessarily involvement of my family, coworkers, or even roommates.  I have my own apartment where I do what I want, I have my own income that I spend how I want, I have my own schedule that I set how I want, and I have my own practice that I effect how I want, largely without the supervision or interference of outside parties.  My family, though aware of and amused by my occult works, don’t have any say in what I do, nor will they disown me for living my life the way I find best.  My job is independent of my occult work and I am legally protected from incurring any punishment for my activities outside the workplace, especially as they pertain to my religious and spiritual beliefs and practices.  I live in a country whose laws protect me, my beliefs, and my free exercise (or lack of exercise) thereof, and where there’s a large and healthy occult interest where I can find many people to share my beliefs and discussions with openly or semi-openly.  And I count myself as among the extraordinarily lucky and fortunate that my boyfriend (and many of our friends, shared and otherwise) isn’t just permissive of the occult but is an active participant in it, studying and training in his own ways for his own purposes, and who mutually aids me as I aid him in our spiritual lives and growth.

Not everyone can be so lucky, however.  Many who want to study and practice magic, the occult, or religious lifestyles often cannot do so nearly as openly, if at all, given their living situations.  Sometimes it’s because their culture won’t permit it, finding occult studies and practices harmful or dangerous, and punishing those who engage in the occult with imprisonment, torture, or death.  Sometimes it’s because of their resources, where they simply can’t afford the space, tools, or supplies that many magicians use (and the temple’s worth of ceremonial regalia my type of magic is known for).  Sometimes it’s because they live with others in close quarters and don’t wish to disturb them or rouse their ire at engaging with this stuff, either out of respect for their housemates or out of fear of their reactions.  Many reasons abound for this, but I’d wager that the fear of religious persecution and oppression is a big one.  I mean, look at how religions like Santeria and Palo Mayombe developed under the slave trade in the Caribbean from their ancestral African forms; depending on the culture, occult and spiritual practices might be blended and merged with those of the slavers and colonialists, or they might be hidden away and kept furtive and secretive when the colonialists punish them.

And this is why magic, spirituality, spirit-working, and the like is called the occult.  The occult is called the “occult” because it’s literally a hidden, secretive, and unrevealed thing to most of the world.  It’s, quite literally, an esoteric study and practice, and though many magicians and occultists (including myself, obviously) have no qualms about talking about it in public, it’s ultimately an intensely personal and internal practice that cannot and can never be shared with others on a fundamental level; each person must develop themselves in their own way according to their own personality and internal self.  Whether it’s out of fear of persecution or merely misunderstanding, many occult topics simply can’t be shared or revealed to the public.  The fourth power of the Sphinx, “to keep silent”, is a development of this; by keeping silent about one’s work, not only will you prevent the world from fucking it up or fucking you up, but you’ll also keep the mysteries a mystery in the classical and original sense.  The occult truly thrives when it’s done privately, personally, and internally, and practicing it in such a manner will give the practitioner a true power that otherwise they might lack.

I was recently emailed by a young man nearing the age of majority who was living with his atheist parents yet wanted to study and practice magic in a way that wouldn’t disturb them or arouse their suspicions.  He couldn’t set up any kind of altar, nor can he perform any kind of advanced ritual; the most he’s been able to do are little amulets and charms and some invocation.  He wanted my thoughts and advice on how he might further his spiritual practice in this situation.  I can completely sympathize with him, too; when I first moved up to the DC metro region four years ago, I was living with my then-ex-boyfriend who wasn’t very spiritual, and though my spiritual work was just starting then, I didn’t want to do much when he was around, much less intoning arcane words of power or making holy water on Wednesdays when we both might be working at home and he needed the kitchen.  Still, I was able to at least start my spiritual practice regardless of his presence, and though it truly blossomed out after he left and I had the apartment to myself for a few months (and got over any apprehension about practicing magic with a future housemate), it was those initial months of practicing in a private and internal way that helped me the most.

First, never forget that no matter what the external world controls in your life, it can only ever control the external things in your life.  The people around you, the resources available to you, the places you find yourself in, and the like all only ever affect the external well-being and state of your life, like your body’s health, the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the parties you go to or are made to go to, and so forth.  None of these things, however, are you, and none of these things can truly affect your internal self.  No matter what happens to you, you are the only one who can ever decide how you react to them and act based on them.  To draw a comparison with aikido, no matter where someone grabs you or attacks you on your body, they can never get your one-point, or center of balance; you can give them your center of balance and let them pin you to the ground, or you can maintain it and move them around no matter how they grab onto you.  It’s the same with the mind and the spirit; no matter what someone tells you to think or how to act, you are the only one who can determine what you think or how you act.  Once you’ve established this primacy and independence of mind from the world, you’ve unrepentantly and irrevocably opened the door to a new way of life, your own way of life.  With that done, everything else is just details.

So what are these details in terms of a spiritual and magical practice?  It’s the simple basics of stuff, really, that I keep harping on about when it comes to magical practice.  The most important resources you need for this are privacy and time, which you likely if you have the capacity to email me or read my blog from a first-world country.  If you have your own bedroom where you sleep at night, or if you have a bit of regular free time in an empty park or office room, you have all you absolutely need to engage in the occult.  If you live with others and if you have the time and privacy (and maybe the occasional excuse or cover-up) for masturbating or playing video games, you have the time and privacy for the occult.  If you absolutely don’t have the capacity for privacy even for sleep (and this is surprisingly common), ask those around you to give you a bit of privacy or seek it on your own; abandoned parks or buildings, empty rooms not your own, even the bathroom will work.  And, no matter how much you might argue, you will always have the time you need to do the occult.  It may not be as much time as you think you need, but if your life is so busy and jam-packed that you truly have no time for the occult, then you need to reconsider what it is you’re doing so you can make time for the occult.

With privacy and time, what can you do?  Plenty, especially if nobody’s going to peek in after you’re done or if you have the ability to leave things as they are after you’re finished.  Even if you can’t, though, there are four big things that you can do: meditate, pray, energy work, trance work, and visualization practice.  I won’t talk about any of these here, because you can find plenty of resources across the Internet and in books about these practices, but suffice to say that any and all of these things, which don’t depend on any physical tools except your own body and breath, are necessary and fundamental to occult practice.  Hell, even if you can dedicate 20 minutes a day every day for private prayer and meditation, you’ve already got 75% of magical practice down right there.  I cannot understate the importance of these few disciplines; everything else in magic, the occult, spirituality, and religion is based off these things.

Besides that, what else can you do?  Study!  Read and absorb as much as you can and whatever you care to.  Nobody (with the exception of the NSA and especially nosy parents) is going to be looking at your browsing history on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, and you can always clear the cache and history when you’re done (and if you ever grew up using a family computer as an adolescent male at nighttime when everyone else was asleep, this should be second nature to you).  If you don’t want people to see your library, get an e-reader and download copies of texts.  We live in a time when an unimaginable wealth of occult and spiritual lore and information is freely and instantly available to ourselves at the speed of thought; by all means, use it!  Study correspondence tables, sacred geometry, the history and development of religious sects, the seals and sigils of spirits, and the like.  Practice drawing out the Tree of Life with a compass and straightedge, and learn how to write in Hebrew and Greek and the magical variants of their writing systems.  Keep a private journal where you note important connections you make, dreams you have, odd happenstance circumstances, how deep your last meditation was, important prayers you have a fancy for, and the like.  Just because you aren’t able to have a blog with oh-so-many devoted readers and shelves upon shelves of magical texts and tools doesn’t mean you can’t keep your own record, notes, and doodles that an untrained eye would think is no more than a student exploring simple art or playful ciphers.

Anything else?  With altars and offerings, you may not be able to erect a permanent shrine to a particular deity, nor might you be able to set up a permanent altar with an array of magical tools synced up in a particular way.  You might not be able to light candles or incense and leave them burning for long periods of time.  You might not be able to make offerings of wine, water, or food.  All of this is entirely okay, and aren’t strictly necessary.  If you absolutely need a working space, clear off a small side table or a reasonably-sized area on the floor.  Pack up your tools when you’re done, and be simple and minimal with your tools if you even need them at all: use a paper printout of a Table of Practice or draw one out on a whiteboard or chalkboard, use a sharpened pencil or a single matchstick (or even your index finger!) as your wand, use a pocketknife as a ritual blade, use a shotglass as a chalice, use a cup of water as a scrying medium, use a colorful bandanna as an altar cloth.  Leave offerings out only for as long as you have privacy and time, and dispose of them in the trash, the drain, the compost, or out the window when you’re done.  Use electric candles, scented candles, an oil diffuser, or a wax melter instead of traditional candles or incense.  Or, rather, don’t do any of this at all, and keep everything internal and personal in an astral temple with visualization and minor trancework.

The only thing that you’re really impeded from in tough circumstances are prolonged and involved ritual, such as a multi-day consecration of a talisman or a full Solomonic evocation of a spirit.  Admittedly, these can be difficult, especially when you need a material embodiment of something to act as a vessel for power.  What can you do?  Be subtle and minimal, as always!  When consecrating a talisman, do the major work in the astral first to build up the power being as elaborate as you want or can, then transfer that power from the astral into a simple object down here: a wooden plank, a wax mold, a cheap ring, whatever.  When doing evocation or conjuration, do it in the astral, and meet up with your spiritual allies and friends there frequently to keep tabs on what you send them out to do down here in the material world.  In fact, the majority of the stuff you can do in a physical temple you can do as well in an astral one, and building up your own astral space is an important aspect of much of modern magic and spirituality.

I won’t lie to you: having the physical space, time, privacy, and resources to engage in the occult is an awesome thing, and it does help immensely to have all this stuff, and I look forward to the day when the dude who emailed me can move out on his own and explore his own spirituality as thoroughly as he desires.  That said, it’s by no means necessary for the practice and study of the occult.  Humanity has always been able to practice the occult and spirituality in even the most dire of circumstances, with the harshest conditions, under penalty of death and worse; this shit is our birthright, and the spirits of the cosmos want us to engage with them and with the cosmos in whatever way is most appropriate and suitable for us.  To that end, they’ll be more than glad and ready to help us in whatever way we can, and they’ll try to communicate with us in whatever way we are able to.  Whether we use the spiritual equivalent of a next-gen cellphone with the clearest call quality ever or a tin-can phone across the cul-de-sac, the spirits will respond; whether we use the Golden Dawn-style or John Dee’s style of pronouncing Enochian, the Enochian angels will still catch our drift; the connection may not be as clear or as easy to understand, but the connection will still be there.  So long as you make the effort to work the magic you want and need to work, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.

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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

4 Responses to On Keeping the Occult Occulted

  1. Alexander says:

    You lost me on ‘The occult is called the “occult” because it’s literally a hidden, secretive, and unrevealed thing to most of the world. It’s, quite literally, an esoteric study and practice…’

    “The occult” (and more on that definitive below), from the standpoint of Western philosophy and history, refers to the non-manifest qualities arising from chiefly (but by no means exclusively) Aristotelian scholasticist study of the operations and organisations of the cosmos, of the nature of nature. In the same way modern physics studies the underlying nature of nature. It’s why Newton’s work on fields was considered occult by both himself and the prevalent mechanistic philosophy of his day. It’s not “hidden” in any other sense that it’s beyond the naked eye, it’s what’s happening under the hood of the universe. It’s certainly not about secrecy.

    Moreover, I don’t really understand the definitive in there – “are you doing THE OCCULT?” – as it seems an anachronstically modern perspective separating magic from nature. I prefer the older natural magic worldview, where these things are not partitioned off, where magic isn’t simply the freakish or that which occurs beyond/in flagrant disregard for the laws of physics. Thus I don’t see what we do as esoteric or esotericism. The magicians of the early mdoern period didn’t see what they did as esoteric, at least, not any more than your average theoretical physicist or physician would today.

    I appreciate your point about people in other modern cultures having to be aware of oppression we Anglo magicians are indeed very lucky to not have to deal with. And also that some things in one’s practice develop best when not spoken about. And yes, the “keep silent” is crucial.

    But it is *not* “why” the occult is called the occult. I’m sorry to belabour the point. But I feel this false etymological definition/attitude perpetuates a fascination with Masonic old boys networks, pay-to-progress pyramid grading, and a general sense of nostalgia for Victorian nonsense that holds us all back.

    Let’s talk about Mysteries, about gnosis, about vision, about dream, about the sacrasanct. But let’s not romanticise secret societies. Ta.

    • polyphanes says:

      Confusingly, you’ve lost me as well. I don’t understand how you’re getting secret societies and Freemasons out of the above post based on my use of the word “occult” to mean “hidden”, e.g. unapparent or unobservable in material ways, as in the way Cornelius Agrippa uses and defines the term in his books. I agree with you on what the occult is, and I was using it in its original literal meaning of “hidden” or “secret”. Your comment appears to me to talk past my post entirely, and if you want to rant about how my not-incorrect use of a particular word displeases you, then indeed, “ta”.

  2. Llew says:

    Well said. I live in North America and have was raised in a Christian home. I had the curiosity when I was a teenager but never the knowledge, time or guidance to do anything with it. Fast forward 20 years and I’m married with a kid but have now gotten into it properly for a year. I unfortunately have to hide every element of my practice as my wife is Christian (marrying what I thought was best at the time) so every aspect of my beliefs in this regard must be hidden. I’ve managed to carve out a semi private space for my office but don’t have the time I’d always like to dedicate to it all. Thanks for your post, from all of us doing the great work from not-so-great environments.

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