The principle function of magical ritual is to cause well-defined changes in consciousness. There are other (non-magical) kinds of ritual and ceremony – social, superstitious, celebratory etc – carried out for a variety of reasons, but magical ritual can be distinguished by its emphasis on causing shifts in consciousness to states not normally attainable, with a consequence of causing effects which would be considered impossible or improbable by most people in this day and age.
The realization that the content of magical ritual is a means to an end, the end being the deliberate manipulation of consciousness, is an watershed in magical technique. Many people, particularly the non-practicing general public, believe there is something inherently magical about ritual, that it can be done, like cooking, from a recipe book; that prayers, names of powers, fancy candles, crystals, five-pointed stars and the like have an intrinsic power which works by itself, and it is only necessary to be initiated into all the details and hey presto! – you can do it. I believe this is (mostly) wrong. Symbols do have magical power, but not in the crude sense implied above; magical power comes from the conjunction of a symbol and a person who can bring that symbol to life, by directing and limiting their consciousness through the symbol, in the manner of icing through an icing gun. Magical power comes from the person (or people), not from the superficial trappings of ritual. The key to ritual is the manipulation and shifting of consciousness, and without that shift it is empty posturing.
So let us concentrate on magical consciousness, and how it differs from the state of mind in which we normally carry out our business in the world. Firstly, there isn’t a sudden quantum jump into an unusual state of mind called magical consciousness. All consciousness is equally magical, and what we call magical depends entirely on what we consider to be normal and take for granted. There is a continuum of consciousness spreading away from the spot where we normally hang our hat, and the potential for magic depends more on the appropriateness of our state for what we are trying to achieve than it does on peculiar trance states. When I want to boil an egg I don’t spend three days fasting and praying to God; I just boil an egg. One of the characteristics of my “normal” state of consciousness is that I understand how to boil an egg, but from many alternative states of consciousness it is a magical act of the first order. So what I call magical consciousness differs from normal consciousness only in so far as it is a state less appropriate for boiling eggs, and more appropriate for doing other things.
Secondly, there isn’t one simple flavor of magical consciousness; the space of potential consciousness spreads out along several different axes, like moving in a space with several different dimensions, and that means the magician can enter a large number of distinct states, all of which can be considered different aspects of magical consciousness.
Lastly, it is normal to shift our consciousness around in this space during our everyday lives, so there is nothing unusual in shifting consciousness to another place. This makes magical consciousness hard to define, because it isn’t something so extraordinary after all. Nevertheless, there is a difference between walking across the road and walking around the world, and there are differences between what I call normal and magical consciousness, even though they are arbitrary markers in a continuum. There is a difference in magnitude, and there is a difference in the “magnitude of intent”, that is, will. Magic takes us beyond the normal; it disrupts cozy certainties; it explores new territory. Like new technology, once it becomes part of everyday life it stops being “magical” and becomes “normal”.
We learn the “magic of normal living” at an early age and forget the magic of it; normal living affects us in ways which the magician recognizes as magical, but so “normal” that it is difficult to realize what is going on. From the point of view of magical consciousness, “normal life” is seen to be a complex magical balancing act, like a man who keeps a hundred plates spinning on canes at the same time and is always on the point of losing one. Magical consciousness is not the extraordinary state: normal life is. The man on the stage is so busy spinning his plates he can spend no time doing anything else.
A characteristic of magical consciousness which distinguishes it from normal consciousness is that in most magical work the magician moves outside the “normally accessible” region of consciousness. Most “normal people” will resist an attempt to shift their consciousness outside the circle of normality, and if too much pressure is applied they panic, throw-up, become ill, have hysterics, call the police or a priest or a psychiatrist, or end up permanently traumatized. Sometimes they experience a blinding but one-sided illumination and become fanatics for a one-sided point of view. Real, detectable shifts in consciousness outside the “normal circle” are to be entered into warily, and the determined ritualist treads a thin line between success, and physical and psychical illness.
A neophyte in Tibet swears that he or she is prepared to risk madness, disease and death, and in my personal experience this is not melodramatic – the risks are real enough. It depends on temperament and constitution – some people wander all over the planes of consciousness with impunity, some find it extremely stressful, and some claim it never did them any harm (when they are clearly as cracked as the Portland Vase). The grosser forms of magic are hard to do because body and mind fight any attempt to move into those regions of consciousness where it is possible to transcend the “normal” and create new kinds of normality.
The switch into magical consciousness is often accompanied by a feeling of “energy” or “power”. Reality becomes a fluid, and the will is like a wind blowing it this way and that. Far out.
There are several traditional methods for reaching trance states of consciousness: dance, drumming, hallucinogenic and narcotic substances, fasting and other forms of privation, sex, meditation, dreaming, and ritual, used singly and in combination. These notes deal only with ritual. Magical ritual has evolved organically out of the desire to reach normally inaccessible regions of consciousness and still continue living sanely in the world afterwards, and once that is understood, its profundity from a psychological point of view can be appreciated.