Spirituality and Magical Power

13424453_sThis relates to my current work in progress, Volume Two of Refuge, titled The Ingathering. The main character is a magical prodigy, potentially a huge asset to the Andol in their struggle against the Droon (see here for information about the Refuge world). But she has serious barriers to developing her abilities. Her magic is suppressed and causes her to exhibit psychotic symptoms, bipolar disorder with hallucinations. As she speculates:

Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.

The other problem is that Claire, a Buddhist, is convinced that use of magical powers is antithetical to the quest for desirelessness and enlightenment. Use of magic feeds the ego and prevents a person from rising above the illusion of the individual self, or so Claire believes. Her powers manifest normally only in small and mostly passive ways, enhancing her perception of the world and allowing her to sense people’s feelings, see auras (including the malevolent auras of the Droon), and gain intuitive insights into the past, present, and future. She is capable of much more, but (so far anyway) these greater powers have only manifested when she loses a measure of control in a depressive or manic episode. When that happened, her depression disappeared (temporarily), but she is reluctant to learn how to use her magic because of what it may do to her spiritual journey.

This internal conflict suggested itself to me because it really exists in some spiritual contexts, mostly but not exclusively Eastern, particularly Buddhist. But one finds it in a Hindu setting as well, and Abrahamic religions have a dubious view of magic, too. Refuge is contemporary fantasy, set in our own world, and so I am in a position to use real-world religious teachings such as Buddhism and Christianity (the latter being the faith of the Scourge of God) as part of the story. In an other-world setting this may not be possible, but in crafting the religion, spirituality, and magic of the other world, or in applying fantasy elements within this one, the conflict between spirituality and magic (and its resolution, if that is possible) become potential story elements and, at very least, parts of the world.

What I’m setting out below are some points in regard to the relations between magic and spirituality as they actually exist. It’s possible to craft a fantasy version of magic that bears little resemblance to the real thing, of course, and then some of the points below will cease to be valid; magic will simply be a type of natural force that exists in the fantasy world but not (as far as we know) in the one we inhabit. My own preference both as a writer and as a reader is to start with real magic and blow it out of proportion or give mages abilities that are beyond my own, but the same in principle — something analogous to speculative science fiction, which starts with real science and speculates on what might be given further developments. The points below assume that context.

Spirituality is magical

The rituals and methods used for spiritual purposes in many esoteric and meditative paths are very similar to those used in magical practice for other ends. The power raised is essentially the same, and so are the methods by which it is channeled and focused. The only difference is the purpose to which it is put. From the point of view of religious authorities, it is those purposes that are problematical, not the power of magic itself. (Unless of course the power comes from an unacceptable source, which it may, but need not — and any mage with a grain of common sense will avoid power sources inimical to his or her own existence!)

Religious authorities are not only uncomfortable with the idea of magical power being used for worldly and perhaps malicious ends, but also with the increase in spiritual experience that may result in a context beyond their control. Every prophet is a heretic, inspired by the power of the cosmos to penetrate under the comfortable and secure illusions that religion weaves and dispute the standard doctrines. If prophecy becomes widespread, belief will become ungovernable, and religious authority will face constant rebellion, chaos, anarchy!

One finds countermeasures applied in all religious contexts. Some religions simply suppress magic and spirituality both, and try to keep everything on a rational basis. Note that this is not the same as a scientific basis. Science is rational, but its reasoning is based on observation as a touchstone. It is quite possible to be rational but unscientific, basing one’s reasoning on assumed first principles or sacred texts, rather than observation. A rigid framework of doctrine defines such an approach, and any spiritual insight that points outside the framework is condemned. What should be in the domain of mythos is instead subjected to the rules of logos.

Where suppression is either impossible or, for whatever reason, not desired, religious authorities have instead attempted to contain magic. Those with magical talent and spiritual awareness are discouraged from having children (hoping to snuff out any genetic predisposition that may exist — something we don’t actually know, of course). One finds this in the Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions and in the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world in pursuit of holiness. At the same time as the talented are forbidden to breed, they are also forbidden from being involved in the world. The monk has all his worldly needs met and turns all of his efforts and powers towards achieving holiness or enlightenment; the sadhu lives in deliberate poverty and does nothing that might impact society. Among those who might not be willing to pursue a monastic or renunciate life, teachings are spread suggesting that the use of magical powers interferes with the quest for enlightenment (such as Claire believes), or that all magical power comes from evil sources.

This is a pattern found in all the world’s major religions, but there are some religious exceptions. Notable examples are the African and African/Christian fusion religions such as Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble, and also Neopagan religions such as Wicca and Druidism. But it is characteristic of these magic-encouraging religions that they exercise less doctrinal and behavioral control by central authorities than is common with the major faiths.

The head of the dragon

The power of magic and spirituality has been likened in one Yoga tradition to a serpent that winds about the spine. Another metaphor that I’ve used in the past is similar: this power is like the head of the dragon, which may be lifted up to the skies in flight, or may drop down towards the Earth and breathe fire.

The potential tension here is between the quest for enlightenment and the quest for power. The power of the dragon (that is to say, of magic) may be used for either one. But if it is exclusively focused on enlightenment, then it makes no difference in the way the world functions, and the potential good it might do is lost. On the other hand, if the focus is exclusively on power, then the danger of power being misused (deliberately or inadvertently) is real and high. Only by soaring high can the dragon gain the vision needed to guide his power. But only by dropping low and breathing fire can these insights be put into practice.

And that is the dilemma that Claire will face as she confronts situations where she must use her magic or see all her friends die — and at the same time, retain her focus on enlightenment that has defined her life up to now. Because if she doesn’t learn to use the power, then it will use her, and not necessarily in ways that she would like.

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Filed under Fantasy Storytelling, Spirituality

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