I don’t know whether or not meditation is the most divisive topic in the magical community, but it has to make the top ten. Some magicians swear by it, others have sworn it off. And each side regularly sends waves of arguments across the No Man’s Land in between.
For those in the pro-meditation trenches, the arguments for it usually go something like this:
- The best magical results are obtained when the mind of the magician is focused entirely on the working. Meditation helps you train the mind to achieve this focus.
- Meditation allows you to quiet the mind and shed your workaday thoughts and worries. This means you are better able to pick up on subtle energy currents, and to develop or improve your psychic prowess overall.
- Through a combination of meditation and visualization exercises you can improve your skills at raising, shaping, and directing magical energy.
You’ve probably seen these arguments before, because they’re often brought up no later than chapter three of most beginner-level magic books. Meditation is hugely popular with popular occult authors.
Then, there’s the anti-meditation army. If you’ve not yet met them on the battlefield, some of their arguments go like this:
- Meditation is an “Eastern” spiritual practice which only made its way to the “West” in the last few hundred years. Since there were magicians in the “West” before this, and their magic worked just fine, no one needs to meditate.
- Related to the above, meditation is culturally-appropriative and a-historical.
- Meditation creates an artificial sense of calm and serenity, which lets you ignore problems, both within yourself and in the world at large. This dangerous habit, called “spiritual bypassing,” is at best an avoidance mechanism that actually hinders your spiritual growth.
Personally, I’m a fan of meditation, and I don’t believe the arguments against it hold much water—mostly because I think they come from a place of misunderstanding.
The word “meditate” comes from the Latin meditari, meaning “to contemplate or ponder.” Since at least the eighteen hundreds (when “Eastern” religious practices really started to take off in the “West”) the term “meditation” has been used as the English translation of various Hindu and Buddhist terms coming from the Sanskrit root dhyai, usually said to mean “to contemplate.”
The word “meditation” has also been used to describe religious or spiritual practices outside of Hinduism and Buddhism, including some found in Sufism, and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In short, any time an English speaker saw someone sit down, close their eyes, and have themselves a think, the word “meditation” got slapped onto what they were doing.
It’s an umbrella term, which is just as readily applied to practices we have in the “West,” like those championed by a certain Catholic priest…
In 1675, a Spanish priest named Miguel de Molinos published a book called The Spiritual Guide. In it, he recommended and described a form of Christian prayer which bears more than a passing resemblance to “meditation” as espoused by nineteenth-century occultists. In fact, Aleister Crowley himself was a fan of this book, and compares it to the work of a contemporary: Swami Vivekananda, an Indian Hindu monk, and one of the people most responsible for introducing Yoga and Vedanta to the English-speaking world.
Unfortunately for Miguel de Molinos, while his Spiritual Guide was originally well-received by the church, critics of his ideas eventually won out. He was arrested, tried for heresy, and sentenced to life in prison. Miguel de Molinos’s story is an interesting one, and if you’re looking for a fun way to spend a Friday night, do a bit of Googling for it.
Anyway, within a few years, his teachings became known as the heresy of “Quietism,” and merely possessing a copy of Molinos’s book was enough to get you automatically excommunicated from the church. And that should probably tell you something about why “meditation” didn’t really take off in the “West” until the occult explosion in the nineteenth century.
But we’re getting a little off track. The point of this language and history lesson is to show you that meditation is just a word. A sloppy, imprecise word we might do well to throw away, but the words we use aren’t really all that important.
What is important is what we do.
In a magical context, when we meditate, we sit down, we shut up, and we pay attention. That’s pretty much all there is to it. At its most basic level, any practice you’re liable to see taking up space in a how-to-magic book boils down to these three things:
- Find a comfortable place to sit or lay down.
- Keep still and silent.
- Focus and observe your mind.
Sure, some magical traditions recommend pretty involved and highly technical practices, and some of those practices can border on the appropriative. It’s a fine line, and when a “Western” wizard starts bringing in maraṇasati or pranayama, they’re probably drifting over that line, but that’s neither here nor there.
You don’t have to sit in uncomfortable postures, breathe in rigid counts, or stare cross-eyed at equilateral triangles for hours on end.
Sit down. Shut up. And pay attention.
And we could all use more practice with that.