Magical Practice and Mental Health

It’s no secret that those of us who are into alternative religions, spiritual practices, magic, witchcraft, and the like aren’t exactly “normal”, according to the definitions of contemporary Western society.  Sure, we may put on nice masks and clean suits to at least quell any suspicion that we’re anything out of the ordinary, but we’re not the type of people whom most people would call sane or safe.  Heck, even among different types or traditions of magicians and pagans, we have people saying “I don’t do that weird stuff” or “this is too crazy for me”.  Eh, it happens.

I think, however, that most of us aren’t actually clinically unsound.  Sure, we’re not exactly the most conventional of people, but we’re not off-our-rockers unstable; we might be crazy, but we’re not insane.  If anything, we’re pushing the boundaries of what sanity means, but still able to operate in sound ways that relate theory and faith to experiences and actions down here in the world of matter and flesh, and even then, that’s only for a subset of the more exploratory, experimental magicians out there.  Many of us are content with getting that little extra boost towards achieving our goals, not world-shattering enlightenment and gods-gifted godhood (although I think everyone should reach for those latter two goals, it being our Hermetic birthright, and all).

Then again, the foregoing only goes for most of us.  As with any group of people, there are going to be a subset of people who aren’t as mentally sound, who aren’t as sane, who aren’t as stable as the rest.  And, like with any group of people, the hotter a mess you are, the louder and more visible you get.  And that’s a problem.

I’m sure you, dear reader, have heard of the stories that Enochian magic drives people insane, or that so-and-so got into this particular tradition and came out a complete loon, or other such anecdotal stories.  I don’t really believe any of them; it’s exceedingly rare that it’s a particular tradition or spirit or prophecy or what-have-you that drives people insane.  It’s much more frequent, not to mention plausible, that those problems were always already there, more latent in some than others, and that their experiences (intentionally or unintentionally, malefically or beneficially) exploited those small cracks into full-blown chasms.  This makes sense, after all; if you have anger problems but are generally well-composed enough to not let them show in the office, working with a lot of Fire or Mars will make it harder to keep your cool; if you have depression but get by on a day-to-day basis, working with Saturn or Water will make it harder to keep afloat; if you have issues with being overly prideful, working with the Sun will make it harder to recognize the achievements and contributions of others.  It’s not a hard stretch to see how working with particular forces can easily knock us off balance with our temperaments, emotions, thoughts, and actions, which is why part of the job is to healthfully and properly incorporate these powers in ourselves, regulating them instead of being overridden by them.

But for those who already have mental issues, magic can be outright dangerous, more than it is for most people.  If you’re emotionally unstable, adding emotionally powerful things to your life can wreck you.  If you’re impulsive, working with spirits who demand contracts (and often much more) can ruin your life by leaping before you look into a deep, deep pit.  Sure, magic can help lives, but it can just as easily hurt lives.  That’s why it’s often so important to have a community or a teacher with you, if for nothing else than to act as a magical spotter or as someone to point out “hey, you’re not acting right, when was the last time you cleaned off?”.  Teachers guide and help us through our mistakes or help us avoid them altogether; communities develop conventions and practices as a whole that keep everyone up and running in a healthful relationship.  That’s why, even in the more popular stories about witches and wizards, it’s always the loner that causes problems.  Not to pass moral judgment on loners out there or to say that the community is always right, but when it comes to the sanity and health of magicians, having people around you as contacts and support is usually a plus.

It doesn’t help that our contemporary Western society isn’t the greatest when it comes to dealing with mental health.  Sure, we’ve come a long, long way in the past few hundred years, but it’s still not adaptive, responsive, or holistic enough to go beyond “you have this syndrome, take this pill” for the vast majority of people.  There are lots of people out there whose problems intertwine the spiritual and mental, and since modern scientific approaches outright deny the spiritual, we end up with an institution that cannot well serve those who suffer.  As a result, many magical and spiritual practitioners find themselves to be the care providers for people, and this is…pretty shitty, to be honest.  So few of us have the proper training, expertise, or background knowledge to accurately assess or describe unsafe mental conditions, and yet we find people on our doorstep with “spiritual issues” that are making people literally insane.  We’re not qualified to help, but we’re the only ones in a position to even recognize some of the issues at hand.  It’s a terrible situation.

Guys, be warned, and take a few things to heart from this:

  • If you’re just getting into magical practices, make a critical self-assessment of your health in all respects, and be aware of any problems that might arise when developing yourself.  You may not be able to practice mental health like a doctor would, but at least you can recognize when mental issues arise in the people around you and work with them to get them the help they need.
  • If you’re generally sound of mind and body, consider augmenting your magical practice with psychology and mental health studies, especially if you plan to work with or on behalf of clients.
  • Everyone could use an ear to listen, a shoulder to lean on, and a hand to hold.  Everyone needs a therapist at some point, whether they’re an official and licensed one or just a friend to guide them through a tough period.
  • If you have problems, get help.  There are many resources available to you, both spiritual and otherwise.  Don’t assume your problems are purely spiritual or purely mental until proven otherwise; explore all avenues, and seek out help no matter the source.
  • If you need help, don’t delay getting help.  There is no shame in reaching out for help, even if it’s just to a friend.  Don’t think that you need to improve on yourself first to be more responsive to getting help; don’t think that you’re so advanced that other people can’t give you a leg up.
  • If you notice other people trying and then giving up trying to help you, especially if this forms a pattern, notice it and realize that you might actually have a problem.  It’s like the inverse of the situation where if you find yourself having to curse all these assholes around you, maybe it’s not them who’s the asshole, but you.  If you find that all these magical practitioners and spiritual guides can’t or are unwilling to help you, it might not be that they’re useless or spiteful of you, but that you have problems that they’re not able to tackle because you need more serious help than they’re able to provide.
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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 Magical Practice and Mental Health

  1. ibgreenie3 says:

    Wise advice indeed.

  2. Andrew says:

    I note that Israel Regardie drew attention in his own writings to the fact that he’d seen a therapist for years, and regarded it as part-and-parcel of his magical work. As I recall, he suggested that seeing a therapist and engaging in the therapeutic work as a client himself, before really becoming a therapist on his own, was critical and essential to his survival and success as a magician and as a human being.

    I took this advice to heart, even though it’s in the introductory and biographical material in The GOLDEN DAWN book of his, and I’ve made use of a therapist from time to time. The therapist didn’t think of the experience and our time together as magical, I’m sure — but I did. It helped me validate some experiences, invalidate others, and improve my working relationship with spirits, and genuinely deepen relationships with humans that I call friends. And the lovely thing is that (with the right health insurance), it’s affordable even if you’re not crazy.

    If time and money weren’t such issues, I’d say that magicians should see a therapist or counselor at least once a month; at the least they should do an extended session with a therapist at some point. I know this isn’t necessarily possible, but it genuinely is beneficial to do so.

  3. chijioke G.O says:

    ”If you have problems, get help. There are many resources available to you, both spiritual and otherwise. Don’t assume your problems are purely spiritual or purely mental until proven otherwise; explore all avenues, and seek out help no matter the source”.
    Excellent advise,those who have ears,let them hear.

  4. Bardon’s IIH has a big section on self-assessment. I stopped giving tarot readings for money because I seemed to be attracting folks who needed serious help in the way you describe. It was draining and I found I couldn’t keep up.
    Thanks for the good advice.

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