Magic or Mysticism? Getting Lost in the Familiar Part of the Woods

To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing.
One does not see anything until one sees its beauty.
Then, and only then, does it come into existence.

-Oscar Wilde

Call it moonrise
This red anathema?

Rise, thou red thing,
Unfold slowly upwards, blood-dark;
Burst the night’s membrane of tranquil stars

-D. H. Lawrence

A few months ago, I was walking through the woods.  It is a familiar path, one I have walked so many times before that it feels as if I have every tree and rock committed to memory.  In fact, I often drift into a kind of mental autopilot when hiking it.  This particular time, however, I found myself looking up into an unfamiliar area about half an hour into my walk, not knowing exactly where I was.  It was a simple mistake; I had not been paying enough attention to where I was going, and consequently I veered off the path.  The small exhilaration I experienced when I glanced up and realized the woods did not look how I was expecting them to look at that particular moment, was like walking down a hallway in my house and coming to a room I had never seen before.

The woods became new to me in that instant.  A place I was so sure I knew just seconds before, was suddenly a different world.  It felt like a small sliver of something mysterious and Other showing itself to me for a fleeting moment, in a part of the woods that would otherwise have been typical or commonplace to me had I been hiking or exploring as usual.  In many ways this sort of feeling, and this sort of experience, was a reminder of how magical consciousness can manifest in unexpected ways.  “Magical consciousness”, however, is a phrase that likely has a host of varying connotations and associations, so before going any further I should explain exactly what I mean by it.

Magical consciousness is difficult to define in any sort of rigid manner, as the definition of magic has changed drastically over the centuries, and we still know relatively little about consciousness itself.  Aleister Crowley, who defined magic as the “Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will,”[1] has influenced many modern conceptions of the practice; however, he also stated that, “Magick is the Science of understanding oneself and one’s conditions.  It is the Art of applying that understanding in action.”[2]  It is this view that more closely parallels my thinking on magical consciousness, especially as it relates to my experience on that day.  For the purposes of this piece, I will therefore define magical consciousness as a state of awareness in which the practitioner gains previously occluded knowledge about either themselves, or an aspect of Nature outside of themselves, which can then be directed towards thetransmutation or transformation of a particular aspect of reality.  This definition still acknowledges the power of the will to enact change, but places less of a direct emphasis on it.  It also allows a bit more space for forces outside of one’s own perception, which may contradict or challenge the will, to enter into the equation.  A sort of psychic or preternatural irruption can, I think, be beneficial in certain situations if handled correctly, but the conflation of magic with what sounds a bit like mysticism might seem inappropriate to some.  However, as Arthur Versluis has argued, magic and mysticism are in fact very much intertwined in the Western esoteric tradition and aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive:

Be it Kabbalism or alchemy…the Lullian art, magic or theosophy, pansophy or esoteric Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry, one finds a consistently recurrent theme of transmuting consciousness, which is to say, of awakening latent, profound connections between humanity, nature, and the divine, and of restoring a paradisal union between them.[3]

The transmutation or transformation of consciousness has long been a common factor in Western esoteric practice, and I would argue that a combination of both magical will and openness to mystical experience can be a crucial element in enacting real change.  It is somewhere near this crossroads, where magical will and mystical experience unites, that I can now continue.

On that day in the woods, I focused my will primarily on raising consciousness through communion with Nature.  This was, in essence, the “magic” I was setting out to accomplish.  However, due to the rigidity of my will, I drifted into an inflexible routine.  I went into the woods with a specific goal in mind, and that goal drowned out everything that wasn’t part of the quasi-Romantic ideal of transcendence as a result of getting back to a pristine or “pure” Nature.  I am sure that somewhere in the back of my mind, I was congratulating myself for hiking on a regular basis, or thinking about all the wonderful things I would gain by “getting back to nature”.  This sort of thinking can come dangerously close to a consumerist attitude, just on a more “natural” level, and in reality, I could have been walking down a sidewalk in New York City and the level of consciousness would probably have been the same.  I walked the same path I usually walk, I looked down at the ground I usually look at, and because my surroundings were so comfortable and familiar, I went into autopilot mode.  It was not long until I became lost in the tumult of everyday thoughts: details about interactions with friends and family; the previous night’s activities; what I regretted about this, that, or the other thing.  On and on and on.

Landscape With 2 Candles' by Tom Allen

Landscape With Two Candles by Tom Allen

When I accidentally veered off the path and realized what had happened, my mind was temporarily disrupted.  I looked up, and it felt as if a force was enabling me to see the woods, not just look at them.  The forest became a great work of magical art in that moment, rather than a mere Romantic abstraction.  It affected in me an instantaneous transformation of consciousness, a blip in which the enchantment of the everyday world came through quite vividly, even if just for a fleeting moment.  I looked up and noticed my surroundings removed from expectation and routine, and a part of the forest that would otherwise have been usual and inconsequential became, in an instant, mysterious and magical.  It could be said that in this moment, I temporarily achieved the goal of altering consciousness through interaction with Nature, but it was only after my fixed will was short-circuited and something unexpected happened, that this mysterious Other seemed to infuse both my surroundings and myself.  After the moment passed, the assimilation of what had happened into “normal” consciousness enabled me to recognize where I had gone wrong, and what my previous mistake had been.  This was the real transformation.

Was this the result of magical will, or was it a mystical experience?  Or was it both?

Ultimately, it is ironic that in pursuit of a higher awareness through Nature, I fell so deeply into a routine that negated a level of spontaneity and openness to the world as it is.  Before that particular moment, I was not seeing the forest as it was; rather, I was seeing it as a tool to be used for a specific, idealized purpose, and as a result, I placed a conceptual screen between myself and the very place I was to supposedly gain revelations from.  Veering off the path short-circuited my will for a brief moment, and as a result, a kind of curtain lifted from my mind.  I was able to see the forest again, in a manner removed from the filter of expectation I had placed over it.

Magical practice can be a powerful way to move towards a higher state of awareness, or exercise more control over aspects of one’s life.  However, just like so many other human endeavors, there is the danger of dogmatic adherence to form, dependence on ideals or idealized methods, or settling into routine, which may lead to stagnation.  It is important to make sure the will has room to breathe, and to occasionally question, or let go of, usual routines or practices that may have worn out their use.  If we occasionally wander off the path (or perhaps, let the path wander onto us), the phenomena that have no names, categories, or trails running through them may teach us significant lessons.  On the other hand, they may simply remind us of something important that we have forgotten.


[1] Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice, Castle Books, 1991, p. xii.

[2] Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice, in Magick Liber ABA, ed. Hymenaeus Beta, Samuel Weiser, 1997, p. 131.

[3] Arthur Versluis, “Western Esotericism and Consciousness”, Journal of Consciousness Studies 7 (2000) 6: pp. 20-33, as quoted in Versluis, Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007, p 168.  See also Versluis, Magic and Mysticism, pp. 2-4.

About Aaron Piccirillo

Aaron Piccirillo is a musician and writer from Connecticut in the United States. He recently obtained his master’s degree from the University of Manchester in England, where he completed an interdisciplinary program entitled “Constructions of the Sacred, the Holy, and the Supernatural.” He also holds a B.A. in literature from the State University of New York at Purchase, and has been active in musical composition, recording, and performance for over a decade. His creative work can be viewed at Aaron also writes guest blogs for Clavis, which you can find here.

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